Monday, 29 April 2013

City and state

We city residents are in the thick of a mayoral race, complicated and complemented by the eternally bizarre politics of New York State. Given the urgent problems facing our corner of the polis, it would be nice to think that reasonable people will rise to positions of command and find solutions for them. I fear, however, that that is excessively optimistic.

The front-runner in the contest to succeed H.R.H. Bloomberg I a.k.a., Moneybags Mike, is former downtown liberal Christine Quinn. Quinn, like so many New York pols, started out as a do-gooder activist tied to all sorts of worthy causes and rose through the ranks to her present perch atop the City Council, where progressive sympathies generally last only as long as the ruling elites wish to tolerate them. Not that I particularly blame her—it’s just healthy to keep things in perspective.

Quinn’s liberal instincts, if such they be, are highly situational. She goes along with things that can no longer be resisted or ignored, such as her recent feints toward reining in the NYPD cops on stop-and-frisk or succumbing at long last to pressure for guaranteeing New York workers paid sick leave. These adjustments often take the form of verbal concessions that don’t mean anything, such as her call to create an inspector general’s office to monitor police abuses. Na ga happen, but Quinn gets a few favorable on-air moments appearing to stand up to the free-lance Mamelukes in blue.

Quinn has name recognition and a certain begrudging respect for being the most prominent woman at the top, and an openly gay one, no less, who recently married her long-time partner. But city residents also realize that she’s essentially a female version of the ruthless ward bosses of yesteryear. More damaging, she’s perceived as a Bloomberg lapdog, doing the seignor’s bidding at every crucial turn and most notoriously helping him rewrite the electoral rules so he could run for a third term, despite two city-wide plebiscites reaffirming the ban.

New York magazine points out in this week’s issue that helping Bloomberg stay was perhaps less of a favor to Bloomberg than to herself given that a certain slush fund scandal was in the news four years ago that could have harmed her chances had she been forced to make the run for mayor in 2009. But that is horse-race talk.

More interesting is the field of potential opponents, including William Thompson, who embarrassed Bloomberg four years by almost beating him on no money (v/s the mayor’s $100 million campaign chest); Public Advocate Bill de Blasio trying to position himself as the liberal alternative; the city’s top Asian pol, John Liu; and even a credible, and thoroughly unlikable, Republican contender, former MTA chief and Giuliani sidekick Ray Liota.

Under New York election law, the Democratic primary coming up in September must be won by at least 40% of the votes cast, so Quinn needs to keep all these snarling dogs at bay if she wants to trot across the finish line on the first ballot. Forced into a run-off, she would face an entirely new scenario, depending on her opponent as second-place finisher.

One of the most interesting figures is Liu whose campaign is being badly tarnished by a fund-raising scandal, which is unfortunate because it would be interesting to hear him raise issues relevant to the huge Asian immigrant population that is shifting New York’s demographics. He was feisty and on target in his prior role as city comptroller, so it’s a shame—and I would add a little suspect—that he’s been sideswiped by the FBI probe of his campaign operations, which were sloppy and probably illegal, unlike the more sophisticated ways of the experienced gangs who know much better how to get around those annoying campaign finance laws.

We even had a brief trial balloon floated over the candidacy of former congressman Anthony Weiner who had put his weenie away after his little sexting problem but not, apparently, for good. Weiner would have been a real problem for Quinn because he appeals, mysteriously, to a wide range of voters and is, or was, a clever demagogue. But the idea went nowhere, and we are spared more AW, for now.

Meanwhile, in Albany the weirdness broadens and deepens. A new bunch of long-time state legislators are under arrest for the yet-again corruption charges; the details are not interesting. New Yorkers are almost immune to stories about Albany deals and crimes, and it’s not because we think it’s okay or inevitable. But no one has figured out how to make it stop.

The cliché about Albany is that the place is and has been for decades run by ‘three guys in a room’. These were the governor, the (Dem) Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and for donkey’s years, the (Rep) Senate president, Joe Bruno, recently replaced by Dean Skelos. These three would agree on things, or not, and everyone else would have to go along because by controlling one house of the bicameral legislature or the gubernatorial chair, any of the three could veto any deal.

When the Democrats won a Senate majority on the Obama sweep in 2008, it looked as though the deadlock might be broken. But then a variety of opportunistic scumbags found a way to sell out their party majority in exchange for plums from the Senate minority, leaving the Republicans with their veto. That crew was later swept away, and the Democrats won again, only to be double-crossed by yet another crew of turncoats.

I suspect that a recent commentator is on to something who said that the underlying problem in Albany is that the members have too little to do. They are part-time solons and often retain their professional activities in their home districts. If the bosses decide everything, showing up and pretending to deliberate on issues is just pantomime democracy. One rarely reads about NY Senate or Assembly hearings on pressing issues of the day, and state legislators for the most part are not associated in the public mind with a cause. They are reduced to pursuers of pork for their districts and to dreams of a better job where they might get a little respect. My own state senator and neighbor Adriano Espaillat hadn’t even finished his first term when he tried to unseat Charlie Rangel for the Harlem House seat and move on to Washington—it’s a pattern one sees frequently.

The day that Albany breaks the iron grip of the Dictatorial Duo and enables members to move their bills through the legislative process without feudal dependence on the ‘three guys in a room’, the residents of New York State may have a chance for real professional leadership. Meanwhile, the capital will attract schemers, scammers, toadies and low-lifes of every genus and species, and our state will continue to limp sideways towards its accidental destiny.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A paranoid fantasy

Within 24 hours of an incident like the marathon bombing, a former CIA guy tells The Guardian, it will be labeled an ‘intelligence failure’. That sounds true enough although it conveniently doesn’t address the Bushites’ massive refusal to notice bin Laden while they salivated over Saddam Hussein in 2001.

But there’s another, more chilling quote from Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institute:

We are going to see this again, and we are going to ask ourselves: how did we fail? But before you ask that question, how are you going to boil the 10,000 people you interview down to that one case, and how are you going to deal with the 500 false positives?

Well, dictators and police states have always had an answer to that: round up the full 10,000, just in case you might have missed an enemy. Would the rest of the safety-obsessed population object? Would it matter if they did?


Harmony Lessons is a Kazak film, not something you frequently run into (‘Borat’, the Sasha Baron Cohen spoof, notwithstanding). It’s an eerie portrayal of that culture tucked into the boundless Asian steppe with a Russian/Soviet overlay resulting from Kazakstan’s 70 year-stint as part of the USSR.

The Tribeca Film Festival throws something like 170 films onto the city’s movie screens every year, a whole lot of which don’t deserve all that much attention. But this one, by Kazak director Emir Baigazin, does, and given New York’s insatiable appetite for film, there was a decent crowd on hand last night for it.

What we saw was a strange juxtaposition, a post-Soviet aesthetic set down in the midst of a peculiar peasant/herder society. The physical and social signs of scarcity were reminiscent of Romanian cinema of the communist period—stark, peeling walls, gruff medical staff, an air of casual brutality permeating human interactions. At the same time, the main character, a boy of about 15, slaughters sheep, takes a bath with a bucket and wears a magic amulet provided by his vaguely Muslim grandmother. There’s not enough setting provided to get much of a handle on the relative preponderance of modernity v/s nomadic heritage operating, but the language switches between Kazak and Russian give a hint of the complexity and contradictions.

The lingering impression of the film is that of a thoroughly joyless existence. Characters never smile, and companionship is expressed through silent tolerance and a willingness to share pain. The society displayed is authoritarian, punitive and dominated by mini-Mafias whose existence are never explained or even questioned and whose operations remain largely mysterious. While this set-up is hardly unique to post-Soviet states, the relentlessness of the abuse is hard to take, and the isolation of a country thousands of miles from any imaginable alternative (Kazakstan lies between Siberia, western China and the other ’Stans to the south) adds a claustrophic note.

What we usually hear about Kazkstan is that it possesses oil and is doing ‘well’, meaning that it has a positive GDP and lots of happy western businessmen doing deals there with the local elites. The Tribeca film is a rare look at what’s happening under that cheery surface.

Friday, 19 April 2013

You know the drill

It’s all so predictable: bomb explodes, wackos call for retaliatory destruction of Iraq, Iran, Muslim enemy country du jour (but NOT fundamentalist ally Saudi Arabia, busily generating actual extremists), dark-skinned people are fingered and pilloried in the yellow press based on zero evidence (like Salah Barhoum who committed the crime of attending the Marathon while Moroccan), and finally VOILA! the culprit turns out to be someone who looks like an extra from Leave It To Beaver.

If the suspects whose photos are plastered all over turn out to be responsible for the loathsome Boston act, all discussion of the political implications and collective responsibility of the ethnic group they belong to (white guys) will immediately cease. We will then start to look at the twisted weirdness of their lives, but whiteness and maleness will not enter into the picture.

But the whole sordid episode is even more delusional and racist than that. What if the demented fuck who blew up little kids and crippled bystanders HAD been a member of some minority group? So what? Muslims or Sri Lankans or toe-worshipping tribes on remote islands can’t produce homicidal madmen? Why does collective guilt only apply to people not like us?

And furthermore, as many commentators have pointed out, why do we only care about bombs that blow up in OUR homeland, at OUR public events? It’s galling to be fed nonstop coverage of the Marathon bombing (even when it’s not laughably false) as if the world just ended while simultaneously our own government thinks nothing of annihilation-by-drone of Afghan or Yemeni wedding parties while we barely stop to notice, much less object. It would take nothing away from our sympathy for the three Boston victims if some concern could be discovered lurking in the collective awareness for the dozens of dead bodies and amputated limbs being generated by the guy who just showed up at the Boston Cathedral to intone pious sentiments about innocent human lives.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Déjà vu for you, too?

The last time we had skeery letters showing up in congressional offices was just about exactly the time when the country needed to get all sweaty and knickers-knotted about the fearsome threat of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMDs. Isn’t that interesting? And now that we need to find an excuse to go to war with the Iranians, funny powders once again appear on a distinguished solonic desk down in D.C. Despite the FBI’s best efforts to railroad a couple of suspects, resulting in the suicide of one, there has never been an indictment against anyone for sending those letters. Let’s see what happens this time.

No doubt it is all just a coincidence.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013


(Porto Alegre, April 10) -- Brazil is all the rage in the econ/finance world given its booming economy and increasing weight along with its the up-and-coming “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India & China) partners, reflecting the new role of what used to be called, somewhat dismissively, the “Third World.” While that hoary category clearly is inadequate, it’s interesting to see how much of the old lingers in the brave new BRIC world, as I am able to witness while here on a work trip.

Things are better and also just as bad as always, which is probably to be expected given Brazil’s entry into neoliberal heaven along with the rest of us. I was struck upon reading the Sunday paper (O Globo, a right-wing rag that monopolistically dominates the news biz here) at a story about the massive imports of tomatoes from, of all places, China to the Brazilian market. Turns out that Brazil can’t produce enough of the little red fruits or at least not as cheaply as the Chinese can, despite factoring in a six-day trip from western China to Pacific Ocean ports, then another 9 days on an ocean freighter, and finally trans-shipment into the vast Brazilian subcontinent [All these times corrected below.]

This we need? Because the numbers superficially add up and people can make money getting an agricultural product halfway around the world, we should celebrate the entry of Brazil into world marketplace? Think of the carbon footprint of that little piece of probably tasteless matter, a social cost not included in anyone’s calculations because we live in an econometric Fantasyland. But the local price of tomatoes has doubled in the past year, so from a business point of view, it’s a no-brainer.

It’s just a depressingly typical example of how Brazil fits into the modern scheme of things. (I marvel at the same phenomenon when I buy a packet of Chinese garlic in my Bronx greengrocer’s shop.) More telling is the steady collapse of the “Brazilian model” of HIV/AIDS prevention and care, which I saw first-hand in the 1990s and am here to explore once again. It’s a good story of how worship at the neoliberal shrine has gone global and is to be applied by one and all, left-ish or right-ish, come what may, forever and ever amen.

Brazil was a big star in the early years of the HIV epidemic because its traditionally militant health professionals, together with key players among the affected parties, developed a strategy of advocacy, direct services, and defense of the afflicted based on the radical idea that health is a human right—which they even managed to get enshrined in the post-dictatorship constitution. Governments in the newly re-established democracy were susceptible to pressures from these folks, and an interesting quasi-partnership evolved in which the state took seriously its relations with “civil society” as it came to be known in Latin America.

One concrete outcome was the successful fight by Brazilian activists for the inclusion of treatment in the country’s long-term strategy for epidemic control. A lot of people, including supposed experts from entities like the World Bank, said this was crazy, that the numbers were too great, that poor people wouldn’t take their medicines properly, that the infected would have to be written off in favor of preventing new infections among the so-far untouched. Activists considered that posture inhumane, counter-productive and unacceptable, and they won that fight. PePFAR, the Bush-era program that brought treatments to the poorest countries of Africa, couldn’t have come into being without the Brazilian example because public health authorities knew that widespread treatment programs could be successful despite the endemic poverty and infrastructure shortcomings in the beneficiary African countries.

But that remarkable Brazilian model arose out of very specific circumstances. There was great interest in the model itself and the spunky efforts of the Brazilian groups, building on the democratic movement that was itself a model for other Latin American countries trying to rid themselves of brutal military regimes. International development aid flowed to Brazil and strengthened the mobilized doctors, gays, social workers, lawyers, and even sex workers as they organized, attended meetings, developed independent projects, monitored government performance, and carried out their own research. Brazil’s HIV work had all the elements that made the foreign charities’ collective mouths water: local initiative, sophistication, principles they could support, and a government permeable to outside pressures and offers of cooperation.

At the same time, the Brazilian government knew it had a serious problem on its hands and was open to ideas about what to do. A disease concentrated among gay men and IV drug users was not something any health department knew how to address anywhere in the world, and Brazil was no exception. Then substantial funds became available as the multilateral lending agencies got into the game. The timely and smart interventions enabled Brazil to keep its case prevalence down (if “down” is the right word) to an estimated 600,000 cases of as of the late 1990s rather than the anticipated million-plus. Even with costly treatments provided free to any user of the public health system, the country was saving money on hospitalizations and lost productivity, and the AIDS response in Brazil made the country a poster child for the world movement.

Then economic growth took off, and Brazil became the “B” in BRICs, no longer “poor” but “middle-income.” Brazil even puts money into the pot for development aid to worse-off countries while the foreign agencies largely have pulled out of health promotion and health-related NGO support. Little by little, the local groups that had spearheaded a smart, critical response lost funding and now have shrunk to a shadow of their former commanding presence.

Meanwhile, the government went through an evolution of its own. I don’t pretend to understand it in any sort of deep way, but it appears that the post-Lula administration of his protégée Dilma Rousseff is monomaniacally focused on economic growth in partnership with the big industrial and commercial actors as a solution to the country’s problems, one and all. In fact, there has been an explicit marginalization of health as a priority concern in favor of putting money into the pockets of the poorest sectors, which is certainly admirable but hardly precludes trying to keep these same folks in good shape.

I’ll have more to say about all this in the next few days.

[UPDATE] My recollection of the newspaper article about the tomatoes was way off, which is understandable because the facts as presented as completely surreal. It turns out that the 2-3 week timeframe I mentioned for a Chinese tomato to reach the Brazilian market is a gross underestimate. The real length, according to the main business page of Folha de São Paulo for Tuesday, April 9, is as follows: seven days from the Urumqi region of western China, FORTY (40) days (!!) on the sea and upriver to a Paraguayan port, 13 more days for offloading, and another five days to get to the principal Brazilian market for the tomatoes in the state of Goiás. Total: two months to get a tomato halfway around the world.

I linger on this incredible fact because we live in a world where our leaders of all parties and inclinations constantly tell us that we cannot provide a decent life for the mass of the population because there just isn't enough of everything to go around. But we can, as a biped "society", and do spend vast resources to transport goods from one place to the next as part of our collective worship of the new God: Mr Market. Those of the twisted Greeks were amateurs by comparison.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Stop, frisk, scare, humiliate, and criminalize—in oh-so-blue New York

The suit against the NYPD for its notorious “stop-and-frisk” policy has gone further to undermine the bogus rationale for it than a whole passel of street demonstrations, which are easy to stereotype and mock. But there’s something austere and hard to brush off about a courtroom and sworn testimony.

Day after day, the department is being stripped naked on the stand as active-duty cops describe how they’re forced to meet arrest and summons quotas, given blatantly racist targets, and punished if they fail to get with the program as defined by the top brass. Even Commissioner Ray Kelly got slapped down in abstentia yesterday when a state senator quoted him saying that the tactic is aimed at generating “fear” among black and Hispanic males. When the city’s lawyers tried to read his rebuttal into the record, the judge cut them off and said Kelly wasn’t allowed to score PR points unless he’d like to drop by for some sworn testimony. That is NOT going to happen because no top cop will ever go under oath to talk about stop-and-frisk in this life or the next, not if they can help it.

The ugly truth about this permanent and everyday assault on non-whites is no news to anyone paying attention, but it is quite delightful to see the truth trickling out in such an embarrassing fashion. It forces the willfully naïve among the city’s liberal elite to chow down on the reality facing New York’s minority kids and many adults. The same tactics wouldn’t survive a week if it were white kids getting harassed and criminalized every time they walked out the door, but the conspiracy to jam blacks can continue as long as the cops maintain plausible deniability. That is finally evaporating.

So let’s review: “stop-and-frisk” is a standing NYPD policy under which cops can grab a kid off the street and pat him down if they have cause to think he’s acting suspiciously. That sounds reasonable until you factor in the assumption of criminal intent that cops harbor on minority kids who live with the constant expectation of being treated like criminals for the way they look. Guys are humiliated in front of their relatives and girlfriends, especially when the frisk includes gratuitous touching of the genitals, and any resistance is of course futile because the cops are always right.

A vast number of pot busts result from this tactic, often involving trickery as cops order the kids to empty their pockets, which is not legally a “search” that would require probable cause. Bad as that is (because it instantly puts the kid into the maw of the criminal system for life), there’s something profoundly oppressive just about knowing that a force of hostile, armed guys can come up and put their hands on you any time they want. The trial has shown that that is exactly the point—to demoralize black and brown males and to induce helplessness and fear—sort of like the Israeli approach to Gaza.

Stop-and-frisk is a calculated strategy by Bloomberg’s million-billionaire-friendly city administration to beat down poor people because these same masters of the universe don’t need them, can’t provide them with decent jobs or education, and have to control them from rebelling at the unfairness of their lives. It’s part of the Giuliani legacy of ramping up policing on everything from turnstile-jumping and public drinking (as part of the now discredited “broken windows” theory of urban life) to more serious crimes like robbery.

But it’s also part and parcel of the shocking number of police killings of unarmed young people, swiftly followed by perfectly shaped narratives about the supposed threat the dead kid presented to them. Once in a while the facts don’t add up, but mostly the trigger-happy guys in blue get away with it. That’s also part of the scheme, to remind the kids that not only do they have to submit, but that the price of resistance could easily be death.

You know that the winds are shifting if a seasoned cynic like Christine Quinn is making noises about the policy and calling for an inspector general to be created for the NYPD. That caused the brass and the mayor himself to stick out their tongues at Quinn and make her look less like a Bloomberg lapdog for her tightening mayoral primary—which I assume was the goal of the whole exercise.

The city won’t give up on this abusive approach, and if it’s declared illegal, they’ll find a way to subvert the judgment and keep doing it anyway. But we’ve got their number, and that’s a small step forward.