Alex Cocotas

This is my personal blog, views expressed here are my own. Feel free to contact me at acocotas [at] gmail [dot] com with further inquiries.

Jan 6

Sketch: African Asylum Seeker Protests Continue In Israel

Today was the second day of a three day strike by African asylum seekers in Israel, protesting living conditions, indefinite detentions, and the government’s continued refusal to review their request for refugee status.

There are over 50,000 African asylum seekers in Israel today. The majority come Sudan and Eritrea, fleeing civil war or dictatorship and arriving to Israel by foot (that’s more than 1000 miles, conservatively).

Following two weeks of smaller protests, 20,000 African asylum seekers marched on Rabin Square Sunday, the largest protest of its kind thus far. Today, the asylum seekers marched on foreign embassies, calling on the international community to insure Israel meets its commitments under the UN Convention relating the Status of Refugees.

I followed one of the protests to the U.S. embassy, where asylum seekers chanted “we are refugees” and “we need freedom” against a serene backdrop of Mediterranean Sea and cloudless sky. Below are some of my pictures.

For more information about asylum seekers in Israel, I recommend reading +972 Magazine.

"You were also refugees! No imprisonment!"

The Tel Aviv promenade was filled with asylum seekers for blocks.

The protest was at the U.S. embassy, hence the flag.

The obligatory “Israelis getting in a heated sidewalk argument about an unfolding news event.” I joke, but this was probably the centerpiece of some mainstream news coverage.

A police helicopter buzzes ominously overhead.


Oct 21

Sketch: Election Season In Ramla

Tomorrow is municipal election day in Israel. While local elections are less important to national political fortunes than in the U.S., they increasingly have national undertones and implications. The New York Times has a nice write up about the mayoral race in Nazareth. Other important races to watch are in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Beit Shemesh.

Ramle is less central to the country’s collective imagination, but it has not stopped the city’s walls from becoming a visual forum on the competing visions of its political future. I do not have time for a eschatological investigation into the meaning of it all, but here is a quick photo tour of the cityscape during municipal elections:

imageThis is Yoel Lavi. He has been mayor of Ramla for 20 years and is credited with the city’s turnaround. He used to be in Likud, but now runs as an independent. Tellingly, he is the only political candidate, as best I could tell, with campaign signs in both Arabic and Hebrew. Not that he has a perfect relationship with the city’s Arab minority: In 2006, rejecting a request to change street names in Arab neighborhoods, he told a reporter, ”If they don’t like it, they should go and live in Jaljulia (an Israeli Arab village)”

imageThe next few shots are from one of the city’s Arab neighborhoods.

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imageTwelve images of deputy mayor Nissim Pinchasov #1

imageTwelve images of deputy mayor Nissim Pinchasov #2

imageI call this one “hedging your bets.”

imageMoses dances with the ten commandments behind a campaign ad for deputy mayor Nissim Pinchasov.

imageסוף


Oct 1

Sketch: Rommywood

A couple is walking around a park. The man wears loose, modern clothes, his kippah the only clue to his religious affiliation. He chats amiably with his wife, who is pushing a stroller. Their other children run enthusiastic circles around their legs .A common enough sight in Israel, but the wife is wearing a sari,a bindi adorning her forehead. I am at a gathering—one might dare call it a festival—of Indian Jews in Ramla,

Yes, Indian Jews. There are approximately 80,000 Indian Jews in Israel. It is primarily composed of four communities, each with their own distinct history: the Cochin, the Paradesi, the Baghdadi, and the Bene Israel. It is not much smaller than the Ethiopian Jewish community, but they have failed to capture the popular imagination in the same manner. 

As I walk in, a band anchored by dueling male and female singers is playing on the stage at the front of the festival. The music is not unlike widely available Bollywood fare—only sung in Hebrew, each fusillade of percussion gracefully tied off with toda raba.

Walking around the stage, I am intrigued by a solitary sign in English: “Book Pavilion.” Being the sort of person this sort of thing appeals to, I obediently follow its arrow to another sign, posted on a gate, pointing to a concrete pillbox some 30 yards beyond its passageway. As I approach the building, a sign posted on its exterior seems to confirm that this is, in fact, the book pavilion. Two lines lead into the building, one populated exclusively by men and the other by women. I have never come across a gendered book pavilion before—come to think of it, have I ever been to a book pavilion before?—but hey, maybe it’s an orthodox book pavilion. Not wanting to upset local cultural norms, I position myself at the back of the male literary queue. I am now waiting in line for the bathroom.

Confused, I walk back to study the sign, although I’m not sure how many alternative interpretations exist for a placard that reads “Book Pavillion” with an arrow pointing to an entrance. I go back to the line, awkwardly peek into what is clearly a bathroom, and can feel myself becoming dangerously close to being foreign guy loitering by the toilets.

On the verge of transgressing real cultural norms, I meander to a photo exhibit of Jewish life in India, on the other side of the pillbox. Here I learn about the once prominent role of the Jewish community in India, especially around Mumbai, its early contributions to Bollywood, and its history of government service. The photos depict a life more glamorous than our current setting, a dusty park with tufts of gnarled grass in Ramla, which, aesthetically speaking, resembles a Stalinist planned city. To the oldest visitors, these are not images of an abstract heritage, but living memories. This dichotomy, a certain romanticism regarding Over There and the relative banality of Haeretz, is, I suspect, a historical memory not peculiar to the Indian community, but one that dates to the earliest aliyot.

To the back of the park is a makeshift market, selling tchotchkes, jewelry, clothing, and Bollywood DVDs. Food vendors sell Indian treats like masala dosa, samosas, and shahi falooda, as well as not so Indian confections like hot dogs, crepes, and cotton candy. Tree trunks were mysteriously determined by collective fiat to be the most suitable trash receptacles, neat piles of litter festooning their roots.

As I return to the stage, there is a Bollywood-style dance number set to thumping Bhangra music. The next performer sings in an emotionally-charged ballad style, more typically Israeli. Interspersed in the crowd were younger Israelis with dreadlocks or ponytails, most likely ashram veterans looking for the next best thing.

A projection screen, running what looks to be a PowerPoint presentation, lists prominent Indian Jewish personalities, the similarities of Hinduism and Judaism (one slide implies that Hinduism is essentially monotheistic), and touts the successes of India’s Jewish community and the commendable generosity of their neighbors in not violently begrudging their presence there. 

The longer I stay the more aware I became of my outsider status. Not strictly for outward appearances, although I was certainly the only gangly American in a baseball cap present, but a deeper, uncomfortable truth for America’s overwhelmingly-Ashkenazi Jewish community, many of whom assume a certain fluidity of identity with their Jewish brethren. Indian Jews have fully adopted Israeli mannerisms: the hand gestures, the shows of affection, the excitable tone of speech. Their children run and play and cultivate minor anarchy with boundless energy, draped in the national uniform of youth: Messi and Ronaldo jerseys. The elders congregate around the edges, flickers of memory and recollection dancing across their faces, the uneasy reconciliation of history and reality that characterizes this country. They are Israeli.

Note: I was able to later find the elusive book pavilion, in a separate building directly facing the bathrooms, which for unknown reasons was not clearly marked.

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Sep 11

Shadows

Amos Oz once described S.Y. Agnon as “a man with three or more shadows.”

***

Ramle is a city of 65,000, twelve miles southeast of Tel Aviv. The city is approximately 80 percent Jewish and 20 percent Arab. Its Jewish population includes many Mizrahi Jews, more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, South America, and Ethiopia, Indian Jews from the Bene Israel community, and is the center of Karaite Judaism. Christians account for between 20 and 40 percent of the Arab population, depending on who you ask. Ramle’s twin cities include Kansas City, Missouri and Kielce, Poland. Kielce was the site of the worst post-Holocaust European pogrom, in 1946. Two years later, the majority of Ramle’s Arab population fled during the War of Independence. Or was expelled during the Nakba. Depending on who you ask.

***

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I visited a Sephardic synagogue in Petah Tikva. My host informed me that most of the congregants were Iraqi Jews. It was my first visit to a Sephardic synagogue as a congregant. It was at once familiar and impenetrable. As the rabbi delivered his sermon I found my eyes wandering around the room. Many of the congregants had a darker complexion than my Arab neighbors in Ramle. Afterwards, my host asked me how I knew the prayers if I didn’t speak Hebrew.

***

At the shuk, olives, cheese and smoked fish are always sold at the same stand.

***

I had a thought about Joyce the other day: Perhaps the pun isn’t so much a gimmick as an unappreciated truth of language. Almost every statement uttered can be interpreted in two three four five ways, but we have been socialized to latch on to a dominant interpretation and appreciate this as inviolable. The foundation that underpins communication is a largely invisible historical memory that assiduously translates empty vessels into meaning. Perhaps Joyce understood the chaos we would be plunged into if we threw open our senses to the alternative interpretations that lurk beneath our words like nefarious usurpers.

***

In Ramle, the sun sits on your forehead like a third eye.

***

What did Oz learn from Agnon?

“To cast more than one shadow. Not to pick the raisins from the cake. To rein in and polish pain. And one other thing, that my grandmother used to say in a sharper way that I have found it expressed by Agnon: ‘If you have no more tears left to weep, then don’t weep. Laugh.”

***

At Port Said, in the shadow of Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, patrons share small plates off butcher paper as DJs fill the air with Mizrahi music. To the untrained ear, it may approximate the aural experience of a New York City cab or Zorba the Greek. But underneath the thick vibrato, undulating melodies, and swaying rhythm, lay not Arabic or Greek, but, for the most part, Hebrew. The music is thoroughly Israeli, which is to say, distilled through a cornucopia of cultural influence. Enthusiasm spreads capriciously across the overflowing porch. The customers, who would not look out of place in New York, Paris, or Berlin, clap, dance, and utter spontaneous intonations of mirth.  Yet the casual observer could be forgiven for believing they had stumbled upon a uniquely surreal scene: Why are Israelis listening to Arabic music?   

***

As I was walking across Ramle, the sun shying off the horizon, I was joined by two companions. The first leaped ahead, long and courageous, stalking my immediate future. The other, more cautious, doted on my side like a child. Just as words carry a labyrinth of meaning, the spectrum of existence is refracted through us. I had cast two shadows.


Jul 23

"Forget it, Jake; it’s Syria" (Or, Why Radicalization is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy)

"The conflict…was a product of impersonal and inevitable forces beyond anyone’s control," the British Prime Minister declared. "We can’t stop people who want to kill each other,” a senior EU official told journalists.

The conflict in Syria has now dragged on two years, left a minimum of 100,000 dead, millions more as refugees, and yet the world is reluctant to lift a finger. 

But those officials are not discussing Syria: they were talking about Bosnia. 

Twenty years ago, western countries justified their inaction in that conflict—despite evidence of mounting atrocities—by latching on to the myth that the Balkans are an irredeemable patchwork of atavistic tribes on an inevitable crash course of destruction. That narrative, however, conveniently omitted that Yugoslavia had experienced a full-scale economic collapse in the decade leading up to the dissolution conflicts, thrusting ordinary Yugoslavians into the arms of nationalist politicians eager to prey upon personal insecurities. 

Now, as Syria plunges into chaos, the specter of radicalization is once again being raised as evidence of a civil war’s manifest hopelessness, giving the international community the reason it needs to wipe its hands, shrugs its shoulders, and solemnly utter its pre-ordained mea culpas.

But radicalization—the smug term we smear war-torn populations with from the comforts of the West—is not fostered in a vacuum.

Czeslaw Milosz provided a succinct explanation of the process that precipitates radicalization in The Captive Mind. Trying to help a Western audience understand the appeal of Communism in Eastern Europe, fresh off the horrors of World War II, he wrote:

“Before the countries of Central and Eastern Europe entered the sphere of the Imperium, they lived through the Second World War. That war was much more devastating there than in the countries of Western Europe. It destroyed not only their economies, but also a great many values which had seemed till then unshakeable.

Man tends to regard the order he lives in as natural. The houses he passes on his way to work seem more like rocks rising out of the earth than like products of human hands. He considers the work he does in his office or factory as essential to the harmonious functioning of the world. The clothes he wears are exactly what they should be, and he laughs at the idea that he might equally well be wearing a Roman toga or medieval armor. He respects and envies a minister of state or a bank director, and regards the possession of a considerable amount of money as the main guarantee of peace and security. He cannot believe that one day a rider may appear on a street he knows well, where cats sleep and children play, and start catching passers-by with his lasso. He is accustomed to satisfying those of his physiological needs which are considered private as discreetly as possible, without realizing that such a pattern of behavior is not common to all human societies. In a word, he behaves a little like Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, bustling about in a shack poised precariously on the edge of a cliff.

His first stroll along a street littered with glass from bomb-shattered windows shakes his faith in the “naturalness” of his world. The wind scatters papers from hastily evacuated offices, papers labeled “Confidential” or “Top Secret” that evoke visions of safes, keys, conferences, couriers, and secretaries. Now the wind blows them through the street for anyone to read; yet no one does, for each man is more urgently concerned with finding a loaf of bread. Strangely enough, the world goes on even though the offices and secret files have lost all meaning. Farther down the street, he stops before a house split in half by a bomb, the privacy of people’s homes—the family smells, the warmth of the beehive life, the furniture preserving the memory of loves and hatreds—cut open to public view. The house itself, no longer a rock, but a scaffolding of plaster, concrete, and brick; and on the third floor, a solitary white bathtub, rain-rinsed of all recollection of those who once bathed in it. Its formerly influential and respected owners, now destitute, walk the fields in search of stray potatoes. Thus overnight money loses its value and becomes a meaningless mass of printed paper. His walk takes him past a little boy poking a stick into a heap of smoking ruins and whistling a song about the great leader who will preserve the nation against all enemies. The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.

He finds he acquires new habits quickly. Once, had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions. The man who fired the gun must have had his reasons; he might well have executing an Underground sentence.

Communism was attractive to the Eastern European “because it [spoke] a language that [was] understandable in the light of his experience.” For many Eastern Europeans, it seemed not only understandable, but the logical course of history. More often than not, it was the intelligentsia, the vanguard of political thought, which most enthusiastically greeted its imposition.

Milosz understood that radicalization, as the outsider perceived it, was man’s instinctual reaction to the crumbling of their “natural world.” But what rises in its place is no less natural. The “natural world,” understood as a function of our historical memory, is fluid and adaptable.

Charges of radicalization are convenient short-hand for writing off the complexities of suffering and insecurity. It also contains a latent narcissism: We wouldn’t have been radicalized had it happened to us. But, of course, it didn’t, so we can disparage them from afar.

Even if the Syrian revolution started with the loftiest slogans in the world, superlative phrases to make a poet blush, they would invariably wilt under the two-year duress of indiscriminate killing, omnipresent fear, and the daily struggle for existence. All the ideals in the world are no match for the putrid, searing scent of burning flesh rising like a grotesque mist from a freshly disemboweled building.

Nor is the Syrian revolution inherently macabre; it started off like just about every other uprising in the region: non-violent protests. As Homs native Nawara Mahfoud recounted in the New Yorker recently, the initial slogans heard were “The people want the overthrow of the mayor” and “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.”

Among many remarkable videos from the early protests, one that stuck with me showed women and children from the village of Bayda waving olive branches and chanting for the release of male political prisoners, presumably their fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers.

Coming so soon after the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, it appeared the uprisings of the Arab Spring had developed something of a script: popular protests, crackdown, larger protests, crackdown, concessions meted out too slowly, even larger protests, and, eventually, capitulation. It turns out in countries less dependent on U.S. foreign aid, their leaders were less than eager to go gently into the good night. This first became apparent in Libya and subsequently Syria. 

(It also played out differently in states where we had vested military interests, like Bahrain and Yemen, but that’s a different story.)

This narrative, of course, necessarily simplifies and glosses over unique internal dynamics specific to each country. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, mass protests in Syria did not rapidly spread to the capital, Damascus, or its largest city, Aleppo. Nonetheless, the crackdown was swift and brutal. Yet, the protests didn’t stop, the Syrian people refused to buckle, and Assad still was eager to extract punishment for openly flaunting his façade of power.  At some point, someone knocked upon the novel idea to fight back against this grisly suppression and it soon became clear that what was happening in Syria was now less of a social upheaval and more of an armed insurrection.

When the realization set in that Syria had devolved into a civil war, the immediate response was that we needed to tread lightly and evaluate our best options, lest we fall into a hasty repeat of Afghanistan. Assad says they are al-Qaeda linked terrorists, a common enough scapegoat for Middle Eastern autocrats clinging to power, but could we convincingly prove him wrong? As Jeremy Scahill pointed out in a recent interview, the failure to identify insurgent groups early in the conflict is an indictment of the American intelligence apparatus in the region.

At some point “we don’t know who the rebels are” gave way to “but what if they are becoming radicalized,” which necessarily spurred another round of meandering while we waited for further information that would insure we were dealing with the right people, should we actually choose to deal with them.

After handwringing about Syria’s impending radicalization and all the terrible unknown unknowns out there, the situation, unsurprisingly, festered and deteriorated. Now that the media has decided the rebels are Islamist thugs hell bent on the reconstitution of the caliphate, we can go about with a clean conscious should Assad prevail because, we’ve convinced ourselves, we had no dog in that fight.

However, the West has certainly contributed to the radicalized state of affairs. While we were dithering on our level of engagement, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia stepped in and started arming the rebels, not out of the benevolence of their heart, but as the latest flash point in their broader, ongoing proxy war with the region’s Shiites, particularly Iran. Saudi Arabia does not care if the Syrian people win a bid for freedom; it wants a decisive Sunni victory. 

Some may question their motivations in accepting this aid, but it appears to be driven by one principle: pragmatism. As Burhan Ghoulian, the former head of the Syrian National Council, said at a talk in London last September, “The Syrian revolution didn’t have the luxury of choosing its allies.”

Given the situation on the ground, is it difficult to understand the attraction of Islamist groups? Facing an intractable enemy, its arm supplies basically unperturbed, is it any wonder that recruits flock to the best-armed rebel factions? With the prospect of violent reprisals looming in the event of defeat, to put it mildly, would you prioritize ideals over arms?

Are there Syrians who have been radicalized and are reflexively anti-American? Certainly. Some argue that any form of aid is effectively throwing our hat in the ring for Islamism. However, note the sleight of hand: Some of the rebels have become radicalized, perhaps even a substantial portion, but this is effectively used as a taint against a population of 20 million, struggling to eke out an existence against a backdrop of death, misery, and perpetual uncertainty.

In the mean time, the U.S. formulated a “red line,” which would supposedly spur us into action: the use of biological or chemical weapons against civilians, unconsciously setting a wonderful precedent for the international community. Note to future dictators: If you are going to kill 100,000 people, make sure chemical weapons don’t kill .002% of them. If you pass the Einsatzgruppen stage, do not pass go, do not collect $200, proceed directly to the corner and put on your UN dunce cap.

When evidence of chemical weapon use emerged, Obama’s off-the cuff remark forced his hand. The U.S. will reportedly begin arming moderate forces with small arms and possibly antitank missiles within the month. 

Ali Gharib argues that this is not really a humanitarian intervention, and he’s right, but that’s non-sequitur semantics: There is no such thing as a humanitarian military invention. The real issue is that our shipments of small arms, reportedly starting with a staggering 20 fighters, are unlikely to meaningfully move the dial in the conflict.

You can only conclude that the West is playing a terribly cynical game in Syria. After fretting about radicalization, the situation predictably declined and now, two years later, we provide limited support for a portion of the rebels, unlikely to change the dynamics of the conflict.

From a purely Machiavellian perspective: Why would we? A drawn out stalemate favors our interests. If we can expend only limited shipments of small arms to draw Hezbollah and the Iranians into a deep quagmire, it’s an enormous return-on-investment. A long war could potentially destabilize Hezbollah—and probably Lebanon with it—radically altering the political dynamics of the region.

However, playing the long game in a civil war is exactly the sort of power struggle strewn with myopic pitfalls that American diplomacy has been ill equipped to handle. Continually, we focus on short-term returns to the exclusion of long-term strategic goals.

Putting aside the obvious humanitarian arguments, if we take good relations with the Syrian people as the given long-term ideal, the imperative is to end the fighting as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the reality is we probably missed our opening. All the options look bad at this point. While I’m not particularly qualified to comment on the available military options, I’m curious why the Libyan model of limited airstrikes already appears to be off the table. Nonetheless, barring a major military intervention, I think the unfettered support of Assad’s arm suppliers insures the country is ultimately balkanized. Of course, 8,000 bodies could turn up in a mass grave somewhere and drastically alter international opinion.

Should that happen, let’s not bemoan the impersonal forces of radicalization as the source of this tragedy and call it what it is: We needed a rosary bead to hold while we hum that old lie, “Never again, never again, never again…”


May 23

The Immigrant in the Mirror

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the news media was in a tizzy to understand the impenetrable shroud of: Why? The omnipresent specter of radical Islam?A wayward manifestation of Chechen separatism? The riptide of the Internet’s isolating tendencies come home to roost? 

Curiously, few of the post-mortems seem to focus on the brothers’ tenuous position as immigrants. Julia Ioffe, writing for The New Republic, penned one of the best pieces. Of Tamerlan, the older brother, she wrote: 

"Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of the statement is the more illuminating one: ‘I don’t understand them.’ This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition and uneasy one cannot be irrelevant."

Ioffe is right that the Chechen identity is fickle and fraught with historical grievance, but whose isn’t? Immigration has never been easy, whether you were Chechen or Mexican or Jewish. 

Then again, the American immigrant experience isn’t static. My paternal grandfather’s arrival at Ellis Island probably wouldn’t resonate with most immigrants today. Nor would the society he landed in, the America of 1913.

The immigrant experience is interesting because it is totally unique in one sense and an unconscious retreading of humanity’s central act on the other. 

The country my grandparents encountered was unwieldy, indifferent, cruel even, but they had communal support structures in place. Many were, of course, cultural or religious institutions. My maternal grandparents, for example, read the Forverts when they arrived in America. Similar support structures almost certainly still exist for new immigrants in one form or another today.

The broader American culture that surrounds these insular institutions, however, has completely atomized, the harbingers of American identity faltering or flailing in new cultural landscape. Some commentators, perhaps a little too wistfully, fondly recall that everyone read Time Magazine and everyone watched the three major networks and everyone followed baseball or horse racing or boxing. There is something terrifyingly conforming about that—and I’m not advocating a return to the era’s social ideals—but there is something to be said for the subtle socialization and inculcation of a cohesive identity in a country of incredible diversity—regionally, linguistically, ethnically, ecclesiastically. The construction of a new cultural identity is critical to a country that lacks a common historical memory, the reservoir from which we draw self-actualization. These institutions were guides, beginner’s outlines on what it meant to be American, a natural mechanism of assimilation.

However, the immigrant, as a concept, has largely faded from popular consciousness, reduced to a collective relic from our past. Even on the verge of a landmark immigration reform package, the immigrant is an elusive creature, a curiosity chasing the American Dream writ large. That’s a bit odd considering immigration has been on the rise. Immigrants accounted for 4.7 percent of the population in 1970, rising to 6.2 percent in 1980, jumping to an estimated 12.5 percent today. While that’s below the percentage of foreign-born population in 1900, it is a bit startling considering their near total disappearance from our collective cultural imagination.

(You might ask, where have they gone? Hint: look at their skin color. The top 10 emigrant countries in 2006 were Mexico, China, the Philippines, India, Cuba, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Vietnam, and Jamaica.)   

Out of sight and out of mind, there is less imperative to develop, define, and refine American identity, perhaps the only thing that imbues a semblance of meaning in the disparate, seemingly inexorable chaos of our culture and society. American identity becomes something presumed: a dusty inheritance, a blackbox of variable output, sustainability built on the assumed powers of foggy memories.

As the idea of America becomes deemphasized, so too is the reality of it diminished. In the documentary My Perestoika, one of the interviewees described his childhood in the Soviet Union as such, “Somehow by 8th or 9th grade, it became clear that people all around you were saying things that didn’t correspond with reality.”

Yes, as children, we are still fed those vague, balmy tropes, that ‘this is the land of the free’ where ‘anyone can make it regardless of creed or color.’ But what do we grow up into? Plutocracy, income inequality characteristic of banana republics, faltering real wages, staggering student debt levels, a predatory health care system, etc, etc. We sure are exceptional—for all the wrong reasons.

But was it ever a dreamy utopia of opportunity and meritocracy? No, probably not, American history is rich with righteous hypocrisy. Langston Hughes famously wrote, “There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’”

And yet! He continues later, “O, yes, / I say it plain, / America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath— / America will be!”

Even those who knew these platitudes to be false, empty, frequently self-serving sloganeering sensed they offered an opening of sorts, a branch they could use to stabilize their struggle. Through their very existence these ideals, these slogans provided a framework through which the underclass could communicate, a tool for appropriation and advancement. Instantly, the vacuous axioms of American life could be repurposed as bludgeons, a means to fulfill languishing promises. Martin Luther King Jr. told the gathered crowds at the Lincoln Memorial:

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

But identity is not so easily sheared off an individual. If America—and with it our tools to create a better, more just society—falls by the wayside, what rises to the fore? What takes its place?

In the case of the Tsarnevs, it appears it was a reliably combustible mix of alienation and angst, aided and abetted by the Internet. The Internet is not responsible for what happened in Boston, but it undeniably facilitates and nurtures the development of alternate identities in a way that was, if not impossible, very difficult 20 years ago. Sure, you could commune with Islamic extremists, but not with the ease of a YouTube link. You could seek out The Anarchist Cookbook, but it was not a Google search away.

What, then, happens to American identity in a rootless cultural landscape? Is it reduced to a listicle of casual jingoism in the wake of tragedy? Three empty letters chanted at sporting events? Can a country based largely on ideas survive the dissolution of its underpinnings? Do we drift into a society of strangers, immigrants each of us, patching together the identities of invisible communities?

Or does it explode?


Mar 13

Which #Brands Are #Winning The #Syrian #Uprising?

Is your brand agile enough to capitalize on a major humanitarian crisis? In the Dunk In The Dark era, #brands need to harness the power of #social to boost #engagement in the wake of wanton bloodlust. 

Let’s take a look at the #brands #winning the #Syrian #uprising:

Cinnabon: The first Syrian franchise opened in June 2011, three month after protests began in Daraa and other cities. Nothing a little #social can’t sugar coat. “We are all about having people add a little frosting to their lives,” it posted on its Facebook last year, in an obvious #brand #win.

Suggested copy: Why not add a little frosting to that shrapnel wound?

Cisco: The networking conglomerate, and Ellen Page-employerreportedly supplies the Assad regime with high-tech surveillance equipment, along with a host of other publicity-shy companies (some people just don’t get #social). COMPLETELY UNRELATED: Cisco CEO John Chambers recently said he would no longer hire American workers or buy American companies until he has successfully blackmailed policymakers into giving Cisco a tax holiday on overseas cash, a proven failure at spurring the job creation he touts.    

Suggested copy: Perhaps a riff on its corporate slogan: Your Tomorrow Ended Here.

Four Seasons: Occupancy has sadly slumped at the venerable hospitality chain’s Damascus location. “Let’s put it this way, the Four Seasons was very excited about the mission of Kofi Annan — not because they were hopeful he’d come away with a solution to the crisis, but because they were finally getting some business. And they knew he’d be back,” a Syrian businessman told Foreign Policy last year. Priorities! But how can the #brand take advantage of the accomplished peacemaker’s patronage? 

Suggested copy: For your next vacation, or flaccid diplomatic mission, drift off to the not-so-distant rumble of RPGs in elegance. 

KFC: The colonel has an instinctive nose for conflict. Franchises in Damascus and Aleppo are serving up its distinctive take on Syrian culinary traditions. Just kidding! They serve chicken…Kentucky Fried Chicken. With food shortages wracking the country, KFC needs to take a page from Buzzfeed-certified #brand #winner and corporate cousin Taco Bell, lest someone else capitalize on the widespread hunger.

Suggested copy: Tired of bread lines? Come into the colonel, it’s finger licking good (assuming your fingers weren’t blown off in a government-sponsored airstrike)

United Colors Of Benetton: The clothing retailer has been working with the Assad regime for years, circumventing a ban on foreign garments that was only lifted in 2005. There are 16 outlets in the country, with plans for further expansion. Syrians are reportedly quite fond of sparkles and studs. Known for its provocative ads, like the Colors of Domestic Violence campaign, how can the #brand utilize 70,000 unnecessary deaths to inspire greater #loyalty among its customers?

Suggested copy: Colors of Complicity – mutilated bodies draped in the latest Spring-Summer line with limp exhortations supporting international action. Maybe a picture of Assad and Obama kissing, or something. 


Nov 5

Rock The Casbah: Social Media And The Arab Spring

One of the most pervasive sentiments dangerously close to becoming accepted wisdom is this notion that the Arab Spring, and particularly Egypt’s revolution, was the first “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution” or, perhaps more accurately, the “I am desperately trying to justify how much time I spend on these things revolution.”

Never mind that the Arab Spring started in Tunisia with a Luddite self-immolation. Never mind that images and news of the unfolding events were primarily transmitted through TV, particularly Al-Jazeera, which has enormous influence in the region and was beamed into 50 percent of Arab homes in 2010. Never mind that usage stats just don’t bear out this disproportionate influence. 

According to Egypt’s Ministry Of Communications And Information Technology, Egypt’s Internet penetration was only 30 percent in January 2011. Even that may be misleadingly high. In countries like Egypt, many users log on to the web at Internet cafes, not the sort of personalized connection we have become accustomed to in the west—also not the sort of instantaneous connection inherent in the social media insurrectionary ideal.

In April 2011, the Dubai School Of Government found that there were 27.7 million Facebook users in the whole of the Arab world. That number was up 30 percent from January, meaning that there were roughly 21 million Facebook users in the entire Arab world at the time of the Egyptian revolution. Not a drop in the bucket, but there are over 80 million people in Egypt alone.

What’s strange, however, is that there is a technological aspect to these uprisings that is barely covered. Perhaps they have been pervasive in the west too long to penetrate our consciousness, but the arrival of mobile phones was a profound technological leap in the developing world. According to Jana, the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the developing world rose from 250 million in 2000 to 4.5 billion in 2011. Worldwide, cell phones have an astounding 85 percent penetration rate. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how cell phones can be used to mobilize thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people into action. While most the world focused on Mubarak’s internet shutdown and prepubescent hacker collectives swore revenge, many overlooked that the cell phone network was shut down as well. More than social media, it was “dumbphones” and TV that drove the development of mass movements in the Arab world.

But but but, what about all those tweets! Sure, there was a deluge of social activity surrounding the events—and journalists like Robert Mackey did an admirable job aggregating them into contextually meaningful information for western audiences—but can anyone convincingly demonstrate that hashtags move the dial? As crowds gathered in Tahrir, were Mubarak’s advisors nervously whispering in his ear, “But sir, we’ve lost TechCrunch…”  

More importantly, can we be certain that the tweets of bilingual Egyptians—a relatively privileged group, one assumes—are representative of broader domestic opinion.  Given the course of events, we can surmise that a majority of Egyptians wanted Mubarak out, but recent history suggests that sentiment may not have been as widespread as previously thought. Ahmed Shafik, a former high-ranking official in Mubarak’s regime, took 48 percent of the votes in the presidential election (he polled at 24 percent in the first round, 1 percent below current president Morsi).

Social media has supercharged the information age. Where reporters once had to harvest sources on the ground, they can now harness thousands, if not millions, of scraps surrounding a news event. However, journalists need to be especially wary of confirmation bias in the Twitterverse. In countries with limited social media penetration, usage can be dominated by a single cohort—such as the urban, tech-savvy young—and is ripe for reinforcing preformed perceptions. 

Two recent examples illustrate the pitfall.

In 2009, the “Green Revolution” swept Iran following the disputed presidential election. The foreign press latched on to tweets, videos, and pictures dribbling out of the country to portray a broad-based ferment. However, the vast majority emanated from Tehran, which, like New York, Paris, or Moscow, is a metropolitan center that stands a bit apart from the rest of the country. It also doesn’t capture the countryside, where Ahmadinejad drew his support (he brandished a populist, everyman image while campaigning). A Persian friend, who still has relatives in the country and is no fan of the regime, told me at the time, “The scary thing is that he probably won the election, even without the fraud.”

A similar thing happened again last winter when protests broke out in Moscow following fairly overt voter fraud in the Russian legislative elections. The turnouts were the largest Russian protests in years, but a casual observer could easily draw erroneous conclusions about the country’s internal power dynamics. Without any election fraud, it is very likely that Putin’s United Russia party still would have won a plurality of votes. One can argue that the election was not contested because Putin has systemically denuded the opposition over the past decade, but that’s a more nuanced narrative than most of the prevailing media coverage.

I’m not making the argument that most Egyptians would have preferred to ride with Mubarak into the sunset. Nor am I arguing that Ahmadinejad and Putin just get a bad rap from foreign media—I find them both personally abhorrent. But the overreliance on social media can create a false perception that the opposition to these regimes is pervasive. As much as it pains our western sensibilities, autocrats like Mubarak, Ahmadinejad and Putin have real bases of support.

The “social media revolution” is such a feel good narrative though, a veritable cache for all our favorite buzzwords: liberation through crowd-sourced bleep bloop citizen journalism, yeah! But underpinning this story is a typically western parochialism: Yes, we propped up your authoritarian government for decades, but we also gave you the tools to set yourself free. Why don’t you love us yet, you ungrateful bastards? The whole thing is basically a self-congratulatory circle jerk. Never mind the Egyptians getting their skulls cracked in Tahrir: We did it, you guys!

Do we really suppose there was no commonality to these people’s experience? No one ever looked up and recognized the ineptitude and wasted potential surrounding them without the benefit of a hashtag? No child was capable of reading the frustration in their parents’ eyes after the stream of small, but regular indignities?

What really gets to me, however, is that the people pushing this narrative are the same ones who regular blather on about how changes to Twitter’s API represent some deep rupture with how we interact with the world. “Twitter Mobile Stresses Follow Count Over Bio & That Makes Me Sad” is just one example of this genre’s delectable navel gazing drivel. You know what makes me sad? The murder of 30,000 citizens at the hand of their own government while the world puts on a grave face, spins the same bullshit “never again” story, sighs helplessly that nothing could be down, and then proceeds to go happily about its day like not a thing happened.

#pray4syria


Nov 2

Live From New York, It’s…

Hurricane Sandy is now four days in the rear view mirror and already the race is on. Most prominently, we see misty-eyed tales of New York’s resilience. Then there are others, for whom the city’s scathing sarcasm and unrelenting sideshows is a sign that everything will be all right. And finally we have the navel-gazing essayists, who probably rode out the storm in Brooklyn, but must expound on “what” it “means” to be a “survivor” of this “hurricane.”

None of these people are probably living in lower Manhattan right now because we have no power, no Internet, and no phone service. (I am writing this from a friend’s workspace just above the Mason-Dixie line on 29th and Broadway, god bless her.) 

My Sandy experience has been nothing profound, nothing life altering, but mostly just that, an experience, a mundane one even. I was not in the hardest hit neighborhood—the flooding was about a block away—and, being young, healthy, and mobile, I’m able to make daily incursions into electrified New York in search of power and whatever else I need. I pass the nights sitting around candles, drinking cheap wine, smoking cigarettes, and jabbering over whatever minutia happens to float to the surface. I am pretty lucky, so who am I to speak to the Ave. D or Battery Park or Coney Island experience.

Like many others, my preparation for Hurricane Sandy was fairly flat-footed. On Sunday, as press conferences rolled across television screens and lines wrapped around grocery store registers, I bought my primary storm supplies: an Artichoke pie and a couple of liters of Ginger Ale. The pizza I could reheat in the stove even if the power went out, which I figured would happen for a day, maybe two. The ginger ale was an audible after the local grocery store ran out of water, my rationale being that I have probably lived out a few days of my life on worse things than ginger ale.

Monday came and the rains lashed and the winds sighed deeply and the water gurgled up on to our shores. That night, as the storm surge pushed forward, two of my roommates and I ran down to check out the flooding. We couldn’t even make it to Ave. C, now swimming under a swift current. The wind was kicking up so hard it blew you back off the street and forced you to take cover. The water was inching towards its next goal, Ave. B, and, with detritus and debris ripping past us, we decided it wise to head back indoors. We lost power about 30 minutes later. 

On Tuesday morning, the city felt like it woke up in a collective daze. Downtown residents straggled uptown in search of fabled electricity. Residents brimmed with the latest gossip and rumors. No electricity for a week, one says. Possibly no subway for a month, another hears. Go to 27th street, another man instructs, that’s where you’ll find power.

Along the way, we found mangled trees, disembodied awnings, and the remnants of fall foliage sprawled across streets and sidewalks. A café on 19th and Park, below the power line, was serving “hurricane coffee” to the bleary-eyed masses for $2—for another $2 they would spike it with whiskey, On 23rd street, everyone’s phones magically sprung into action and in flowed the worried e-mails and text messages. Yes, I’m fine. No, we don’t have power. Yes, we should have enough food. No, I don’t know when its coming back on, etc etc. 

One thing is for sure: local businesses have been endearing themselves to residents in ways that I doubt will soon be forgotten. On Monday night, as the storm surge peaked, we sat in Heather’s on 13th St., about a block from the flooding, drinking cold beer under the dim generator light as the wind whipped around us. The next morning, another bar fired up its generator so locals could juice their phones. Bodegas stayed open by candlelight, selling canned goods and crackers to residents in need.

I had two recurring thoughts as this experience unfolded. The first was how dream-like and surreal this whole episode was. I kept having to tell myself that this was my reality, and that, yes, this is really happening right now. The lashing winds, the floodwater than nipped at my feet by Ave. C, the daily migration northward, the nightly flickers—it all seemed like some bizarre phantasmagoria that I had accidentally stumbled upon. The second was more metaphysical: Hurricane Sandy was historic. I will tell my kids, knock on wood, about this experience. Yes, history was unfolding around me, but was I really taking any part in it? My inability to reconcile these two thoughts—the abstraction of the immediate and personal experience with the supposed firmness of the historical and remembered experience—nagged me throughout the week.

I have grown to hate that familiar “New Yorkers are so resilient” reflex that has undoubtedly touched the lips of many pundits, commentators, and earnest well-wishers this week. It implies a consciousness that is silly given the situation. New Yorkers are just like anyone else whose community has been ravaged by a disaster. Do the daily slights and frustrations of living in New York prepare you better for such an event? Maybe. But I doubt New Yorkers are any more resilient that residents of New Orleans, the Miyagi Prefecture, or Joplin, Missouri. Stop fetishizing New Yorker’s experience, this is just what people do: You put your best face forward, kvetch, make bad jokes, grasp at normalcy, and get on with it. Some people act like heroes and others act like idiots because they are, you know, human. I genuinely feel lucky. Despite the inconveniences, it has been a perversely enjoyable experience. It could have been worse, and for many others it is, but because we have the money and the media we are the preternaturally and eternally resilient New Yorkers.

On Tuesday night I made the eerily silent walk from my friend’s place on 4th and B back to my apartment on 11th and A. The streets were pitch black, save the occasional generator or headlight. I was vigilant because of persistent, but unsubstantiated, rumors of muggings in the neighborhood. Food trucks had pulled up into the neighborhood to serve warm food to cold residents. “Thanks for being open,” one man said as he grabbed his food. Two bicyclists came down the street looking like primitive Tron characters, their bikes wrapped in Christmas lights. “I don’t think we look ridiculous,” I heard one say as they passed.

Don’t we all, don’t we all.


Jun 22

Coup D’Etat Blues (But It Ain’t All Over Now, Baby)

Musical accompaniment: The Clash - Clampdown

In a move that seems glaringly obvious in retrospect, the Egyptian military orchestrated a magisterial consolidation of power last week. The recently elected Parliament, led by an Islamist majority, was dissolved and stripped of its power to draft a new constitution, just before the runoff in the presidential election. The army’s power grab also offers an important lesson in revolutionary politics: it is easy to focus on the alphabet soup of special interests that surface in the immediate aftermath of a revolution, but that diverts attention away from the logical heirs to the throne: those that hold the guns

With the benefit of hindsight, you can’t help but think that the army also had a hand in the disqualification of four major presidential candidates on April 14th. Most significant was the dismissal of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafist candidate, whose poll numbers were rising alarmingly fast. His disqualification meant the ultraconservative Salafists would have to coalesce around the main Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. In late April, Morsi was only polling 3.6 percent, according to the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies. With a unified Islamist front, he would go on to win 24.8 percent of the vote in the first round and is believed to have won the runoff against Ahmed Shafik, the former commander of the Egyptian Air Force.

The liberal vote, on the other hand, never unified and diluted across a slate of candidates. However, the disqualifications still had a significant impact on liberals. The dismissal of Ismail’s candidacy insured that the largest voting bloc in the country would not splinter across several Islamist factions. Likewise, the disqualifications also ensnared Omar Suleiman, also a prominent representative of the Mubarak regime, who would have likely siphoned votes off of Shafik.

Egypt’s young liberals, the impetus behind the revolution, were left empty-handed in the runoff. Voting for an unapologetic representative of the regime they just overthrew was anathema, but they are also understandably distrustful of the Islamists. After all, it was these young activists who braved the initial crackdowns in Tahrir Square. The Islamists only moved in later, after the revolution’s cascading momentum became self-evident. The Islamists had, in effect, co-opted the liberals’ cause. Now, with even a veneer of choice eliminated for liberals, the army has essentially co-opted their frustration and fostered indifference in its place.  

The most obvious parallel for the oscillations of Egypt’s emerging democratic-authoritarian political dynamic is Turkey. The legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the state, is still the foundation of modern Turkey. All Turkish leaders must show deference to his stewardship and trace the ancestral lineage of their policies to Kemalism.

The self-appointed heir and protector of Ataturk’s vision is the institution that birthed him, the army. Any Turkish politician perceived to have strayed too far from his teachings lives in nightly terror of an anxious knock on the door.

There have been three overt coups in Modern Turkey, and another by memorandum, which was something of a post-modern coup. General Cevik Bir remarked on the occasion of the soft coup, “In Turkey we have a marriage of Islam and democracy. (…) The child of this marriage is secularism. Now this child gets sick from time to time. The Turkish Armed Forces is the doctor which saves the child. Depending on how sick the kid is, we administer the necessary medicine to make sure the child recuperates”.”

Yes, the current Turkish government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan has diverged far from Ataturk’s secular ideals. However, if economic growth were not so robust right now, the country would likely be due for its fifth coup any day now, which brings us to an important point. Turkey’s military has an atrocious human rights record, but it has implemented structural reforms in the Turkish economy, especially after the 1980 coup, that set the stage for today’s boom (Turkey’s economy is among the fastest growing in the world).   

While the revolution gave a generation of Egyptians their first taste of free expression, free assembly, and that superlative intangible ideal, freedom, even its most ardent supporters acknowledge the country still faces pressing issues that threaten the basic rhythms of everyday life. Egypt’s economy, never robust to begin with, has stagnated since the revolution. This is partly because tourist dollars, a vital lifeline of the economy, have dried up, but is also the result of the endemic uncertainty that hangs over the country’s future. 

Egyptians understandably experienced a mass outpouring of joy and optimism after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Who could not help but be moved by the images from Tahrir Square? Unfortunately, Egyptian activists are coming to a hard realization: transformational change will be gradual and it is extremely difficult to dislodge an institution that has effectively run the country for over 50 years. In light of recent developments, my hope is that the country can weather its economic crisis under the shadow leadership of the junta. However, once the economy has regained stability, activists will be able make a renewed push to wrest power from the military. After all, if Turkey’s experience has taught one thing about political dynasticism, it’s that cash is still king.


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