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Tuesday, April 01, 2003


Their Pain, Our Gain: Some Notes from the Center of the World

New York goes on being a kind of vortex: what boils up in the rest of the world, in New York drops down. Here they smile at one who flees; out there they make him flee. As a result of this kindness, a strength has come to this people.
– José Martí, March 29, 1883, New York City, reporting on the memorial at Cooper Union following the death of Karl Marx

I am in daily danger of giving my life for…the duty of preventing the United States of spreading through the Antilles as Cuba gains its independence, and from overpowering with that additional strength our lands of America….

I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails….
– José Martí, May 18, 1895, Dos Ríos, Oriente province, last (uncompleted) letter (to Manuel Mercado) before being fatally wounded in battle the next day in Cuba’s War of Independence

I’m a New Yorker. Although I was born somewhere else (in the only other city I really love), I’m a New Yorker; the fact that I wasn’t born here actually proves it. New Yorkers aren’t born; they’re made. By this city, mostly. By a secular, human rapture (the only kind worth talking about) that opens up the world and lets you in. There have been moments in my life, in fact, when this city’s sheer physical presence saved me from some very dark private passages.

A few years back, I found myself in a position in which I faced a truly Byzantine (or maybe classically Greek) act of betrayal and backstabbing. As always with these things, it happened when everything was (finally) going extremely well and the future seemed, for the first time, to be brilliant. I was so shattered by the unfathomable (and sudden) malice and foulness of it all, however, that, after much thought, I decided to walk away (it was not so much a job as a mission). Although I had much support in the organization for which I worked, especially from the man who headed it (who was unusually perceptive and decent, and so instantly realized what was going on), I knew that staying — and fighting and “winning” — meant indefinitely enduring unceasing mudslinging, and even more mendacity and slander. Having walked away from other “dream situations” for a lot less reason, I decided that I’d put this particular investment of 6 1/2 years under the “Life-is-Hard-and-Then-You-Die” column.

Nonetheless, the day I finally faxed my resignation letter was extremely difficult. I immediately left my office and slowly walked home. I live in Gramercy, on the same block as the Friends Seminary. I was almost numb with depression that morning; when I got home, I took our dog, Sam, and headed for Stuyvesant Park (Melanie, my wife, was at work). It was about noon and a beautiful fall day. It only took me a couple of minutes to begin shedding my skin of self-pity. By the time I turned the corner on Rutherford and 15th, I actually felt physically lighter, as if I had been unburdened of some crushing weight. I just kept walking Sam — and myself — around the park and then veered west to Irving Place and up to Gramercy Park. Twenty minutes later, on Irving, I thought: This is ridiculous. It was a magnificent day — one of those mythical autumnal Manhattan moments that are signature film frames by Woody Allen — and most of all, I was in New York. I was living in New York. And then, just as quickly, I thought: If this had happened to me in Athens, I would have killed myself.

Do you need a passport to go from the US to Manhattan?
As José Martí recognized a century ago, the City of New York and the United States of America reflect, and define, different loyalties. A city is a city the world over, and always set against the “country,” not merely as an idea of rural opposition but as one of national coherence and unity. Even our Biblically inherited moral vocabulary points to (human) arrogance and impiety, (human) sin and irreligion as purely urban transgressions, from Babel to Sodom and Gomorrah. Old Testament prophets rail against Jerusalem, as do New Testament apostles, who execrate the city (and its urban okhloi) for the passion and martyrdom of the Son of God (“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets,” Matthew 23:37). This urban deicide (of Him who, appositely, evangelizes and moves among the world as a simple son of Galilee) is, furthermore, stamped with the imprimatur of another city, the mother of all cities at the time: Rome. Unsurprisingly, the Eternal City is denounced by various (mostly anti-Catholic) Christians even today as the “Great City” and “whore of Babylon” (Babylon, naturally, not Assyria) that is deliriously damned by Saint John in his Revelations.

It’s the most ancient religious trope: cities as redoubts of blasphemy and infidel factories of sacrilege. The hegira begins with Muhammad’s expulsion from Mecca; in this (conceptually preordained) narrative, the persecuted Prophet can only triumph when he finally compels the recalcitrant city into “submission” — that is, “Islam” — and “reestablishes” it as the core of the faith (literally, given the Ka’ba). Whether you’re Muslim, Jew, or Christian, in other words, there is God and there is Mammon, and Mammon is not found in the countryside.

Or maybe it is. Maybe Mammon is the hundredth (and hidden) name of God. Martí was wise. As a Cuban, he understood dominion and colonialism. Yes, New York was colonized by Mammon (as opposed to the other way around, which was how most people saw it, and still do), but it also “smiled” at, and offered refuge to, those fleeing Mammon’s maws. He had “lived in the monster,” after all, and knew that the belly of the beast was huge and dark and cold. If God is power, then power can quickly be “transubstantiated” into God, or at least into His Benediction and Divine Commendation; thus are battle-cries born, followed by crusades, jihads, and, most of all — and the real reason for all of the above — wars of “manifest destiny” and, more accurately, conquest.

Faith-based imperialism
Killing for God seems to be the most universal human confession; plundering for God involves a much tighter Elect. That’s why God’s killers tend to individual anomie, while God’s pirates tend to corporate and organized association, indeed, to the efficient predations and vigorous violence of a state. An example, and some historical perspective:

The Pledge of Allegiance was composed in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of the utopian socialist novel, Looking Backward) to celebrate the quadricentennial of the “discovery” of America. It originally read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This is not the Pledge we know (and some of us still recite) today. Bellamy would have preferred even greater divergence: he had wanted to add the word, “equality.” (Americans, it seems, didn’t abhor the French a hundred years ago, and liberté, égalité, fraternité were not merely consonant with but guideposts to our own democratic ambitions of “liberty, equality and justice for all.”) In his final draft, he left that provocatively resonant word out, however, as he was working as chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education, which, Bellamy knew, would never endorse his own egalitarian allegiances. Bellamy, after all, was a socialist, just like his cousin.

Following the First World War (and the Red Scare and Palmer Raids), and at the instigation of the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution, the much more personal and emblematic “my Flag” became the much more institutional and hierarchical “the Flag of the United States of America.” Bellamy was still alive, and protested, but to no avail. During the first decade of the Cold War (in 1954) came the most ideological and resolute addition of all: by an act of Congress no less, the phrase, “under God,” was added, turning the Pledge into an explicit, collective exhortation to divine judgment and, clearly, divine confirmation. As someone who grew up reciting the Pledge every day at school, I can also attest to the fact that it became, in truth, a laic rite in which, in the oldest tradition of theocracy, it became impossible to distinguish the political from the theological.

Even worse, however, as this nation had no established confession, the state became the religion. We all might have been kids, but we knew instinctively what we were pledging allegiance to: “one nation[-state], under God[’s terrible swift sword], indivisible [with dissent both treasonous and blasphemous], with liberty and justice for all [who obey].” It was thus that the “national security state” became a national state of insecurity for an entire generation, as we repressed our paranoia and internalized our panic. For people who wonder why those of us who grew up in the Fifties responded as we did when we came of age in the Sixties, I can only shake my head in genuine bemusement.

Francis Bellamy would have been mortified. Although a Baptist minister, he was chucked out by his Boston congregation because of his socialist sermons. He ended up moving to Florida, where he stopped going to church entirely because of the racism he encountered in his parish. In the event, Bellamy understood that conflating God with the Republic was a toxic and insidious confusion.

The road to Baghdad
The last weekend before war was the first decent one we’d had in New York since the fall. On Sunday, March 16, President Bush was meeting with Tony Blair and José María Aznar for their baroquely pointless photo-op in the Azores. It was clearly the beginning of the end. I took a long walk. (Melanie had left for Greece on Friday, feeling not so much that she was deserting her country as that her country had deserted her; she took Sam with her.) Heading south from my apartment, I was soon in Soho. The streets were jammed: everybody was out, especially families; it seemed that every other person was pushing a stroller. On Spring Street, I cut west and ultimately ended up in Tribeca, on Greenwich Street. I went into Bazzini’s, which was once upon a time — when there were still gangs in New York and the area was filled with Syrians and Greeks and probably an Iraqi or two (avant la lettre, of course, since the British had not yet reinvented Mesopotamia) — an immigrant nuts-and-dried-fruit wholesaler but a few years ago had become an upscale gourmet market complete with sit-down coffee bar. I sat down for a coffee, and delved into my Sunday Times; it was thankfully quiet, as there was only one other person sitting in the area. When I looked up about a half hour later, however, aurally distracted by a distinguishable buzz, every table had been taken, and, once again, several strollers were parked in the spaces in between. After a few minutes, I got up and walked home.

What struck me most that day was the sheer activity; it was, again, a classic New York moment: the first day of a premature spring, people rushing into the streets to celebrate the end of an unusually bad winter. That’s why so many families were out, of course. To get back into nuclear rearmament, to bond with the only collectivity that apparently matters any more to most Americans: that nanofraction in which everybody looks like you and you know where they all came from. It certainly did not seem that the conversations drifting in the ether concerned Iraq, or that the legions of self-obsessive cell-phonistas were comparing notes on President Bush’s anticipated speech the next night, or that there was any sense of foreboding in the air, any palpable calm before the storm, any conspicuous feeling whatsoever that we were about to embark on a course of murder, violence, and physical destruction of a whole nation that, in our entire mutual history, had never done — or, if truth be told, could do — anything at all to harm us. Wherever I turned was a private (and privatizing) carnival of the repressed: security in comfort, bliss in unconcern (if I didn’t still retain seemingly depthless deposits of affection for this city, I’d call it indifference). It was all a vast, unending block party, with shops and restaurants and cafés packed, and lower Manhattan flamboyantly indulging its business/pleasure/self-investment in the implicit shadows of two tall towers that were no longer standing.

Axis of history
The next afternoon, after another edition of this Website went online, I headed for Washington Square Park, book in shoulder-bag. The book was Louis A. Perez, Jr.’s Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, his history of the country. Perez is, of course, the noted historian of Cuba. As I was sitting in Washington Square reading, I came to a sentence — one sentence in a 539-page volume filled with charts, maps, an 18-page “Political Chronology” and a 103-page “Selective [!} Guide to the Literature” — that crystallized in my mind how little Americans will ever understand the world in which they live. I quote: “In 1954, Havana had the largest number of Cadillacs per capita of any city in the world” (p. 297).

It took a few moments for the full effect of this fact to sink in. I thought of Los Angeles (and, obviously, Hollywood) in 1954, of New York, Chicago, and Miami, of Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Rio de Janeiro. It struck me that the ignorance on which our daily exchanges with the world are based is almost unwittingly baneful. I should say here that I’ve never thought of myself as an average American when it comes to my politics, social perceptions, or, most relevantly, knowledge of and interaction with the rest of the planet. Indeed, I have been to Cuba (with my friend Stelios Vasilakis). What struck me about the fact cited above, however, the reason I found it so starkly evocative, was that in that one facet of an infinity of facets of an entire society (and history), I realized how little even I — who thought I knew so much — really understood about a country and a people with whom I am deeply sympathetic, and about whom I have tried to learn much over the years.

For the record: 1954 was the year after a small group of anti-Batistianos attacked the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953; it was that attack, of course, and the subsequent trial of those who took part that introduced their leader, Fidel Castro, not only to the world but to most of his fellow Cubans. One other quote from Perez’s book, a much longer passage this time (selectively cited):

The beneficiaries of North American rule [following the end of Cuba’s War of Independence in 1898] were North Americans. They descended upon the war-ravaged island by the shipload, a new generation of carpetbaggers: land-dealers and speculators of all types, agents for corporations and small homesteaders, all in search of opportunity.

During the occupation, and continuing through the early years of the republic, U.S. control over sugar production expanded….

By 1905, some 13,000 North Americans had acquired title to land in Cuba….An estimated 60 percent of all rural property in Cuba was owned by individuals and corporations from the United States, with another 15 percent controlled by resident Spaniards. Cubans were reduced to ownership of 25 percent of the land….

Cubans faced exclusion from more than the land….Even before the military occupation came to an end, the newly organized Tobacco Trust in the United States had established control of some 90 percent of the export trade of Havana cigars….

Foreigners also controlled mining. The iron mines of Oriente were almost entirely owned by U.S. investors. During the occupation, the military government issued some 218 mining concessions, largely to North Americans. The Juraguá Iron Company controlled more than twenty separate claims around the region of Caney…. Smaller enterprises included the Sigua Iron Company (Pennsylvania Steel and Bethlehem), Cuban Steel Ore Company (Pennsylvania Steel), and Ponupo Manganese Company (Bethlehem). Copper mines around Cobre were owned by British and United States investors.

The railroad system was dominated almost wholly by foreign capital…. The Havana Electric Railway Company, a New Jersey corporation, established control of the capital’s electric transportation system during the occupation.

Foreign capital controlled utility concessions as well. The Spanish American Light and Power Company of New York provided gas service to major Cuban cities. Electricity was controlled by two American corporations, the Havana Central and Havana Electric. United States contracting companies established branch offices in Havana and competed for government projects. The Havana Subway Company had sole right to install underground cables and electrical wires. United States capital controlled telephone service, the Cardenas City Water Works, and the Cardenas Railway and Terminal Company. (pp. 195 ff.)

Funny how axes of evil depend on whose ox is being gored. Just a couple of additional “cultural” observations: “They” call it their War of Independence; we call it our Spanish-American War. (Abracadabra: the Cubans have disappeared from…Cuba.) We now call it “Operation Iraqi Freedom”; I wonder what Iraqis will call it in 10 or 20 or 50 years. As for the description of “North American rule” in Cuba, it reads eerily like the chronicle of an occupation foretold (but, of course, we all know that Halliburton got the first major contract in American-occupied Iraq — for who knows how many tens of millions of dollars — fair and square). Let’s all just hope that most Iraqis have no idea of how we “saved” Cuba.

Axis of culture
After reading for about an hour, I went to see Ten, Abbas Kiarostami’s most recent film. Kiarostami is Iran’s most famous filmmaker — around the world, at least, if not here. Indeed, I’ve seen most of his films in Greece. He’s been making movies for over 30 years, and Ten was selected for screening at last year’s New York Film Festival, his fourth work to be so chosen. Kiarostami himself was scheduled to be at the festival — and subsequently to lecture at Harvard — but had to cancel his visit at the last minute because the US government had banned his entry.

Once again, September 11 had changed everything. (But weren’t foreign artists and intellectuals continually denied US visas during the Cold War?) In the event, it seems that “homeland security” precluded granting entry to the US to a filmmaker about whom Akira Kurosawa had said that, “When Satyajit Ray [the great Indian filmmaker] passed on…I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.” Clearly, Kurosawa did not believe in the same God as the One to whom the Bush administration prays daily and en masse.

The protests went round the world, of course. Martin Scorsese publicly registered “shock” and “solidarity.” The New York Times editorialized: “It’s a mystery what the Bush administration thought it was protecting us from when it denied a timely visa to…Abbas Kiarostami. Surely not international embarrassment.” After failing to intercede on Kiarostami’s behalf with our ambassador in Paris, Jack Lang, France’s former minister of education and culture, accused the United States of “intellectual isolationism and…contempt for other cultures.” New York Film Festival director Richard Peña was at least frank: “Getting visas for Iranians has never been easy.” The most pointed and wisest (and, as it turned out, most prescient) comment, however, came from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. Although he, too, was due at the festival to accompany his new film, The Man Without a Past, he canceled his appearance and released the following statement, which I quote in full:

Not with anger (which has never brought anything good), but with deep sorrow, I received the news that Abbas Kiarostami, a friend of mine and one of the world’s most peace-loving persons, is prevented from participating in the New York Film Festival because, being a citizen of Iran, he was refused a visa.

I had also been invited to the festival, which is one of the best in the world. Under the circumstances I, too, am forced to cancel my participation — for if the present government of the United States of America does not want an Iranian, they will hardly have any use for a Finn. We do not even have the oil.

However, what concerns me more is that if Abbas Kiarostami is being treated like this, what will happen to nameless prisoners? I consider the Geneva Convention as the last hope of mankind, and as a private citizen of Finland, I accuse the Government of the United States of violating it.

Meanwhile, I would like to invite the present U.S. Secretary of Defense to visit Finland. We could take a walk in the woods and pick mushrooms. That might calm him down.

If international cultural exchange is prevented, what is left? The exchange of arms? Somewhere, someone said that every man is created equal.

In his characteristically loopy but in truth extremely keen montage of Kiarostami, Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld, and looming war against Iraq, Kaurismäki put his finger on the true axes of sentiment and history, values and culture, and psychological and affective resistance that are aligned against us as we proceed to remake the world against the world.

And what about Kiarostami? His response echoed the ethic and esthetic of his work: poignant, with a self-deprecating irony. “I certainly do not deserve an entry visa any more than the aging mother hoping to visit her children in the U.S. perhaps for the last time in her life,” he wrote to Peña. “For my part, I feel this decision is somehow what I deserve.”

As for Ten itself, it is extraordinary in many ways, and I could write much about it, but not here. Suffice it to say that it’s esthetically intrepid as well as morally penetrating. The film is shot entirely in an automobile, with two digital cameras affixed to the dashboard; it was edited down to 94 minutes from 23 hours of footage. It is, as one can imagine, a refreshingly rigorous work, especially for those of us who still go to movies (or engage with art in general) for method as much as for meaning (or, more to the point, hoping to find meaning in the method).

The title comes from the film’s episodic structure: there are 10 chapters — they are not vignettes — longer or shorter, which take place over an unspecified period, all in a car driven by an unnamed woman (wonderfully portrayed by Mania Akbari). She’s thirtysomething, obviously middle-class, stylish, and recently divorced, whose 10-year-old-son, Amin (Amin Maher, in another marvelous performance), hates her precisely for that reason. Indeed, in “1” — the first 10-minute episode of Ten — we see only Amin, essentially ranting against his mother and announcing that he’s going off to live with his father.

He does, because his mother lets him, as we learn in subsequent episodes. Meanwhile, in segments “2” through “10,”the unnamed driver drives a number of other people to and fro (yes, actually, she is a sort of self-moving mover), all of them women, including her sister, a pious elderly woman (whom we never see), a prostitute (also unseen), and a friend who prays continually so that her fiancé will finally commit to marriage. It is this latter character, in fact, that delivers the most astonishing and revelatory image of the film.

As they ride together to mosque, the driver’s friend reveals that her fiancé has finally decided, and that he has left her. She is crushed, so much so that she has cut off all her hair. The driver can’t believe it, and asks her friend to take off her hijab. The friend is ashamed to, because she “knows” how ugly she looks. The driver finally convinces her, however, and her friend takes off her head-cover to reveal a completely shorn head.

She is, of course, stunning — severally so. Moreover, she is also deeply provocative. My reaction, however, entailed my own cultural baggage and self-referentiality (naturally). I immediately thought: She could be from the East Village, a hipper-than-thou, ultra-pomo, ready-to-rave woman of her time. I’m not sure that was Kiarostami’s intention. His primary intention, in fact, was surely to outwit — and point to the inanity of — Iranian censorship: in this case, the rule that prohibits a woman’s full head of hair from being revealed on screen. His solution, however, was not only brilliant but conspicuously multilayered and almost defiant in its visual insistence. Kiarostami has been to Paris and London and Berlin enough times to know what the visual look of Western “modernism” is. The “revelation” in this scene is therefore omnidirectional, and certainly conceptual, and meant to attack all sorts of cultural (and ideological) entrenchment no matter where the bunkers lie.

If nothing else, it directly assails all notions of cultural perception based on cultural presumption — which is, of course, a radically subversive strategy at a time when, to quote the latest edition of The Economist, “As American soldiers fan out across the Iraqi desert, government troops of another kind are fanning out across America.” The reference is to the FBI’s “Operation Liberty Shield” (the Bush administration’s Orwellianisms have become self-parodic), which, according to The Economist again, has “conducted 5,200 ‘voluntary’ interviews with Iraqi-born people,” with another 6,000 planned (March 29-April 4, “Under Suspicion”). On second thought, maybe the US was right to keep Kiarostami away from our shores.

New York, New York
What was clear to me as I left the theater was that any culture that considers another culture that produces such infinitely textured and generous art as part of an “axis of evil” is manifestly and inarguably pathological itself. That night, President Bush announced his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within 48 hours or face war “at a time of our choosing.” Saddam, as we know, stayed put. We moved, and everybody is where they are at the moment.

The war will run its course; wars always do, unfortunately. I don’t want to think of the law of unintended consequences right now (it’s too scary). What I do want, however, is to figure out what’s happened to New York. What’s happened to what I always thought to be the inbred notion here of dissent: not political or intellectual dissent, but emotional dissent, that hygienic habit, like showering and brushing your teeth, which establishes your focus in the morning, after reading the paper and realizing that, yes, you’re up and you have to contend. I’ve lived in this city for well over 40 years and I’ve lost my grip on it. I don’t know where its civic center lies any more. I live two short blocks east of Union Square and a few blocks north of Tompkins Square — about as spatially iconic as you can get in this town — and I feel as if I’m closer to Syntagma. And it really isn’t political — or merely political. New York’s always had Republican mayors, but it never had a Republican ethos — at least not in the city as a whole. We listen to the most inane, sometimes obscene, pap coming from Washington and we don’t even roll our eyes any more; indeed, more and more often, we concur and ratify.

So we have God on one side and the city on the other. At the moment, God seems to be winning; so much so that He might kill us all. The only resistance to Him, as the ancient prophets knew, is the city. Where is it? What’s happened to it? Where’s it gone? We better find it quickly or we’ll soon be singing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God in full gear and battle formation on the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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