Saturday, September 25, 2010

Viva Nueva York

Nueva York, the new exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, explores Gotham's relationship to Latinos and Spanish-speaking countries from 1613 to 1945. It's a fine show that will have you thinking "I didn't know that" soon after you enter and "tell me more" by the time you reach the end of the exhibit.

Most international understandings of New York are oriented on an east-west axis. Alter this to north-south, as historian and curator Mike Wallace observes, and a different perspective emerges. (Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Mike and the exhibit's main curator, Marci Reaven.) In this view of things, New York becomes a center for trade with the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean during the 18th century, a center for Latin American patriots plotting to liberate South America from Spain in the early 19th century, and a home for Latino writers, artists, immigrants and activists by the early twentieth century.

There are many things to be learned from Nueva York, but none more important than how the growth of the imperial United States changed the city's relationship to Latin America. Before the Spanish American War, and the U.S. rise to power in the Caribbean, Gotham was a city where Latin Americans worked to advance their own liberation and economic interests. After the Caribbean became an American lake, New York was more of an imperial city in a hemispheric empire. The relationship between less equal, more lopsided. Thus were some of New York's best traits as a city compromised by its presence in the larger United States of America. But not forever.

As the ending of the show and an afternoon walk around almost any part of New York makes clear, the migration of Spanish-speaking residents of the American empire to New York City since 1945 has transformed the culture and population of Gotham. While the show anticipates these changes, they really call out for an exhibit of their own.

Nueva York, produced in a collaboration with El Museo del Barrio and the New-York Historical Society, is a fine show that deserves a post-1945 sequel. The exhibit is on display at El Museo del Barrio until January 9, 2011.

Friday, September 24, 2010

George Steinbrenner's Monument

They dedicated a monument to George Steinbrenner this week in monument park in the new Yankee Stadium, the Yankee’s Valhalla of heroes. Steinbrenner’s tablet was placed in the center of the area, and at about 1,500 pounds dominates the other monuments, twice the size of those afforded such minor baseball immortals as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Perhaps this is only fair. The old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built. It was also the house that Steinbrenner demolished, and if the new stadium has an “only begetter” it is George Steinbrenner.

When Steinbrenner passed away this July the eulogies set some sort of record for maudlin insincerity. Steinbrenner was, of course, a greedy and avaricious man, a bully and a tyrant, who used abused his position of authority to abuse his underlings mercilessly, occasionally appeasing his bad conscience by acts of sporadic generosity. It is the very definition of a paternalist, who treats people like dirt, demands loyalty, and then wants all to be forgiven because he throws his peons a Christmas party.

He was lucky enough to have purchased the Yankees in 1973 when the team and all of baseball was in a trough, and he rode the upturn of the market to his fame and fortune, and it would have more or less turned out identically, if one may play a counterfactual hunch, if Steinbrenner had remained in Cleveland or Tampa.
His baseball prowess was greatly exaggerated. He was the first owner to really understand the changed terrain of baseball after free agency, and he soon acquired some of the prized properties, like Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, and of course Reggie Jackson, and they led the Yankees to victories in the 77 and 78 World Series.

But other teams soon caught up, and Steinbrenner spent the next decade and a half acting as his own general manager, bullying his staff into trading away prospect after prospect for over the hill stars entering the downward inclines of their careers.

The turning point came in 1990 and 1991 he was kept out of baseball for trying to spy on Dave Winfield, and in the interim, his baseball people, loosed from his tyranny, started to make their own decisions, and cultivated a crop of prospects such as Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter that formed the core of the great turn of the 21st century teams, while Steinbrenner, happily for all, largely stayed on the sidelines.

But his arrogance remained undimmed and as always, unearned. Any boss who wants to be called “the boss” is only interested in being the Pharaoh of a land of prostrate sycophants. What is most disturbing about the legend of Steinbrenner is that it fits sp neatly with recent trends in American culture, the valorizing of the entrepreneur to such an extent that it reduces workers to insignificance, and the belief that leadership, with all of its authoritarian resonances, rather than collaboration of equals is the way to get things done. I suppose Steinbrenner really thought the Yankees were an extension of him, and that he was the most important Yankee of them all, the Babe not excepted.

To me his monument will always not be the new plaque, or the New Yankee Stadium itself, a $2 billion tribute to his vanity, an unnecessary boondoggle that New Yorkers will be paying for until the Yankees decide its time to build a third Bronx stadia, but the reality that the most famous sporting venue in all of the United States, one at which, as a Bronx inductee into the cult of Mickey Mantle I worshipped at with all of my youthful fervor by the age of six, has been reduced, by Steinbrenner’s whim and a snap of his fingers, to a rubble strewn future parking lot.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Unmitigated Horror from Buffalo

Reactions to the New York primaries from Peter Eisenstadt
So after a century, we have moved from a form of voting in New York State where you only had to do one thing—go into a booth and pull some levers—to one where you have to do two things, fill out a form, and then feed it into a computer—and the possibility of making a mistake in voting has greatly increased, since now it is far easier to vote for two candidates for the same office. I would hate to see what happens in a crowded polling place in November. I suppose this is progress. But the other story of the day is Carl Paladino trouncing Rick Lazio for the Republican nomination for governor.

Paladino is a Buffalonian, and though I live just an hour away in Rochester, I never heard of him until he decided to run against Lazio. He is an unmitigated horror, a vile racist who had the most extreme take of any NYS politician on the Lower Manhattan Muslim Cultural Center, and a candidate of undisguised white rage who offers nothing but his anger against Albany, and NYC, a walking collection of biases and prejudices.

Democrats are happy that the Tea Party surge is moving the Republicans further rightwards, supposedly leaving that ever-elusive vital center up for grabs. Perhaps, but my big fear that whether by winning elections directly or scaring the moderates, the Tea Party will just push the debate further rightwards. What is most upsetting about the Tea Party and people like Paladino they have energized is that the lesson they have taken from the past decade is that the Republican Party has not been conservative enough, that white people have to regain their rights from an America run by immigrants and minorities

I suppose Andrew Cuomo will still win easily, but he is not terribly exciting. There is much to be done, and the hour is late. Democrats and democracy in New York State are still recovering from the downfall of Elliot Spitzer, and four lost years of governance. Whatever happens, I fear our state will be far worse off for having to listen to Paladino’s frothings and foamings for the next two months.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Playing Into Bin Laden's Hands

At his best, Ted Koppel represents the finest of the old American network news system. He's smart, informed, and deft in his judgments. His recent piece in the Washington Post about Osama Bin Laden brilliantly makes a point that can't be made loud enough

Bin Laden deserves to be the object of our hostility, national anguish and contempt, and he deserves to be taken seriously as a canny tactician. But much of what he has achieved we have done, and continue to do, to ourselves. Bin Laden does not deserve that we, even inadvertently, fulfill so many of his unimagined dreams.

It did not have to be this way.

As Koppel points out, the U.S. was perfectly right in crushing the Al Qaeda operation in Afghanistan after September 11. But since then, we have consistently blundered into wars, moral quagmires and errors of policy that weaken us and create recruiting opportunities for Bin Laden.

Read on.

Losing the Best of 9/11

September 11 is a difficult anniversary, but the bile that distinguishes this one is particularly troubling. Here are my thoughts on the matter of 9/11 and the proposed Muslim communty center, reprinted from the Sunday, September 5, 2010 Record at

Nine years after September 11, as debates rage over plans to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, we stand on the brink of losing one of the best things about our region’s response to the assault on the World Trade Center: the inclusive spirit that animated our first wave of rescue efforts and mourning rites. And that would be a terrible loss to inflict on ourselves.

I saw that inclusion as a survivor of the attacks and as a historian who tried to interpret our responses in essays, documentaries, conferences and public lectures.

Inclusion wasn’t the only one reaction to the attacks—there were stupid, ugly things said and done in all sorts of ways--but the determination to share our struggles and our griefs in public harmonized with our constitutional freedoms and our need to overcome terrible losses.

We need to remember that today. It’s not only a matter of freedom of religion and showing the world that our fight is against terrorists, not Islam. It’s also about keeping faith with what was best in us after 9/11.

When the South Tower collapsed in smoke and flames, I was standing on Broadway near Liberty Street. I ran for my life, expecting any second to be buried under a mountain of falling debris. Instead, I was caught in a cloud of smoke that choked me and blinded me until I finally caught my breath and my bearings.

As I staggered eastward through the smoke, I came upon one man who looked to be from South Asia and then another man whose ancestry seemed to be Latin American. We locked arms to support each other and plodded forward.

As we trudged down a narrow side street, someone pushed open a door to an ordinary building and hauled us inside.

There, in a food court, we were helped by one man who probably came from the Middle East, another who might trace his family to Ireland, and women with roots in Africa and Latin America. We did the best we could to help each other: we rinsed our eyes and throats, shared cell phones to call our loved ones, and soaked towels in water to make improvised dust masks for when we ventured into the murky streets outside.

There might have been a Muslim among us, but we never got around to asking each other’s religion. All we did was recognize each other as human beings who needed help.

Still, not everyone was helpful as I trekked home covered in ashes and dust. I had to ask twice before someone loaned me a phone to call my mother in North Jersey. Once, when I knocked on a restaurant’s door to beg a glass of water, the staff told me they were closed.

But I saw enough kindness to convince me of something I have believed ever since: the good people in this world outnumber the bad.

When I made my way home to East 81st Street in Manhattan, I impressed on my wife and children the most important thing I had seen: in a crisis, ordinary people had stepped forward to do incredible things—and that would see us through.

Foxhole solidarity eventually gave way to something more subtle. As the shock of the attacks yielded to the grief of mourning, the ecumenical spirit of improvised memorials was apparent throughout the metropolitan area. Walking the streets of New York, I saw sidewalk memorials jammed with Jewish yarzheit candles, Roman Catholic mass cards, and a typewritten prayer from a Muslim cleric.

In Union Square, patriotic memorabilia rested next to signs that said “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” The bitter smoke from the World Trade Center hung thick in the air, but never have I seen a better display of religious freedom and the right to dissent.

It was not all peaceful coexistence. In New York, and in Jersey City, some Muslim parents kept their children home from school for fear of attacks. Newspapers reported verbal abuse of Muslims in New York City. Conspiracy mongers and anti-Semites claimed that Israel was implicated in the attack.

Yet formal observances, both immediately after 9/11 and one year later, were visibly interreligious. “A Prayer for America,” a memorial service at Yankee Stadium held September 23, 2001, included Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Sikh, Jewish and Roman Catholic devotions. One year later, at an interfaith memorial service, police officers, firefighters and rescue workers joined in as Muslim students from the Noor Ul Iman School at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey led everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance.

As we wept together in the aftermath of September 11, we learned about each other’s responses to common experiences. We could even grasp that, for all our differences, each of us contained something of the other: a Jew’s injunction to remember; a Roman Catholic’s sense of communalism; a Muslim’s feeling of fear in a familiar region that suddenly seemed threatening; and a Baptist’s faith that the city would rise again.

The hijackers attacked us with indiscriminate hatred: they killed Americans, Muslims, and people of many more nationalities and religions. Our response should distinguish between terrorists and Muslims. It should also affirm humanity and freedom. And that includes freedom for religion in the shadow of Ground Zero.

As we struggle to maintain justice and security in our region, we should embrace people of all religions and nationalities who are willing to work for a better tomorrow. That surely includes the people who want to build a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan. To do less is to violate the best spirit that our region displayed in the hell of 9/11.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Leaving Iraq, Remembering Frank Carvill

The latest changes in the US position in Iraq inevitably make me think of my friend Frank Carvill, who was killed in action there in 2004. Many words have been written and spoken about Frank, but none truer than those of Sgt. Bart Prouty, Jr. at the Fallen Heroes site.
I knew Frank only for a short time. He took me to chow my first few hours in Iraq. He kind of gave me the inside scoop of how things were there. He is the first soldier that I had any contact with outside of my unit in Iraq. But he made a lasting impression.

I was a medic with the 984th MP Co at the time. He was in a Combat Livesaver class that I was teaching at one point (kind of an advanced first aid class) and he was always asking me questions, trying to expand his knowledge as much as he could. That really impressed me.

Most of the kids in that class were there because they were told to be. Not Frank. He was a sponge, absorbing everything, even during the breaks when I just wanted to relax, always wanting more. He really seemed to be a selfless man.

I was in a class at Camp Victory with some medics from C Co. and Frank was one of the guys who picked us up to take us back to Camp Cuervo. We had lunch at Victory and I noticed he stayed behind with the vehicles as a guard while everyone else had chow. Always looking out for the other soldiers.

Sgt. Prouty's reminiscences are a great reminder that in the middle of a war, Frank remained the same person he always was: intelligent, generous, curious, and responsible.

The concluding thoughts in Sgt. Prouty's post speak for many.
I still cry to this day even thinking about him. He was the most selfless man I have ever met. He was a good man and everyone could learn something from him... how to be a better person.

Images from the war still haunt me every day, but I know Frank would not want that. He would want us all to do every thing we can to be better people.

I am a better person just for knowing him, I just hope that I can be a fraction of the man that he was.

SGT Bart Prouty, Jr. of 159 Med Co (AA), Wiesbaden, Germany

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ma-Nish Ta-Na

A brief comment on the Israel-Palestinian peace talks. There is no good reason for optimism, and many good reasons for pessimism. For starters, Netanyahu and his far-right coalition will almost certainly not renew the settlement freeze, which will likely lead to the talks collapsing before they get started. Between Netanyahu’s intransigence, Abbas’s weakness, the absence of Hamas, my fears of Obama’s cluelessness and deftlessness, and issues such as Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, which in the current context, seem unresolvable, it is easy to see ways for the talks to fall apart quickly. And at the various Oslos we have seen talks fall apart in the past, when the auspices were considerably brighter than they are now.

And yet the alternative is what, precisely? The Palestinians will not improve their bargaining position by not talking. I am deeply skeptical about the basic interest in the Israeli government and the increasingly conservative Israeli public in peace. And yet if there is hope of progress without mutual bludgeoning and bloodletting, the talks will be an absolute desideratum.
I see no chance that the Palestinians will get what they want from Israel, a final, permanent settlement of all outstanding issues. The talks will certainly end ambiguously, and it seems more and more likely the settlement of the Israel-Palestinian question will be ambiguous as well, neither a one or two state solution, but more of a one and a half state solution, or a two and a half state solution, with a de facto Palestinian state (or states ) unilaterally declared by the Palestinians. And the current negotiations, with an implicit if grudging recognition of the new reality by the US, would be the most likely positive outcome of the current talks. With Rob, if we look to Irish precedents, let us consider the famous words of Yeats:
What rough beast, its hour come at last
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Israel, the PA, Hamas, and the IRA

The need for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians is so great that I'll hope for the best in the current negotiations while expecting something less. The obstacles to peace are many, and one of them can be illuminated by an example from Irish history--specifically the history of the IRA.

Carey McWilliams, my old professor, made the point in the 1970s: the IRA could never force the British into a settlement in Northern Ireland--but it could prevent any settlement that it did not like. Once, this was true of the PLO. Today it is true of Hamas.

The Israeli government may forge an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. But can the Palestinian Authority bring along Hamas? If it can't does that mean a civil war among Palestinians? Or a Palestinian state on what is now the West Bank and something else for Gaza?

The parallels between the two situations aren't exact, but the examples of Ireland, the IRA, the aftermath of the Irish war of independence, and the more recent decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, are sobering.