Thursday, November 07, 2013

New Yorkers Vote to Cede Public Lands to Private Owners

Everyone has been looking forward to a new era in New York City leadership with Bill De Blasio's mayoral win on Tuesday, November 5th, but there has been very little hype about the ballot measures that passed.  Everyone knows we voted to have statewide gambling - as if it weren't here already - but there are other ballot measures I believe we should be more concerned with.  The two I speak of, Proposals 4 and 5, were voted in with roughly 72% and 53% approval, respectively.  These approved proposals now allow Adirondack lands, which are supposed to be "forever wild," to be placed into private ownership.

Proposal 4 was a bit complicated because it involved a township that is situated on the public lands.  This New York Times article recalls a news item from 1903 that called the residents "squatters."  The proposal finally gave the long-time residents ownership of the land they've lived on for decades, even though it was technically situated on public land.  One can imagine how such a precedent might play out in the future.  Can anyone build a house on public land now, stay there for a long time, and then finally get ownership of the land?  Should folks be allowed that power?  How might that complicate the idea of land preservation?  I don't think there is a clear right or wrong side to this issue, especially when we think of the generations of people who have lived in the township who only now will have added rights and benefits because they legally own the land they live on.  How many years did they not receive certain services because they were not legal land owners?  As the NYT article shows, the issue was not an easy one to resolve and it literally took over one hundred years to finally reach an agreement.  Nonetheless, it sets a precedent for private owners to claim public lands.

Proposal 5 is not complicated at all.  Even though the vote was tighter, the majority of New Yorkers voted to allow NYCO Minerals to expand their mine into public lands.  In a truly bizarre twist, the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Adirondack Council - two groups that are advocates for the preservation of the area - actually supported the bill.  It may be because NYCO Minerals, as part of the deal, has to give land of a larger value to the public, but that doesn't change the fact that the mine will go deeper into the preserve and that weakens the entire area around the mine (I learned that in my Populations and Communities class in college).  Therefore, the mining company isn't just affecting the lot they are taking; they are also affecting the rest of the land around that lot - and all the vegetation and wildlife that lives there.  This article, by Bill Ingersoll, describes the reasons why Proposal 5 was a bad idea.  I wish more people had been aware of the issues he describes, especially in terms of the precedent that has now been set.  We have decided that it's okay to cede public land to a private entity even though there is no public benefit from that transaction.  I shudder when I think of what can happen as a result of this vote.  This blasts the door wide open for other environment-destroying companies to make deals with our government and to ruin our land, water, and skies.  Yes, I know it has been happening for centuries, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stop it every time we have the opportunity to vote on it.  I mean, we actually get to vote on these things - how important is that?  It's exciting and amazing.  Yet some of us don't realize how taking that time makes a huge difference not only in our lives, but on our physical environment.

The real issue is that these ballot proposals are rarely covered in a compelling way or in a way that draws the interest of large numbers of people.  There are few who search for information about the proposals in order to be able to vote in an informed way.  I can find the articles and share them with you because that is what I do, but I know most of the voters out there didn't have much information about the proposals.  If I had been wiser and less work-addled, I would have written about this issue sooner - before voting day - and shared the information I had with my friends and students.  Today, I feel bad that I didn't.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Be a Savior: Rising Above Twerkish Conversations

For the first time in about 20 years of teaching, the majority of my students said they read on a regular basis, when I asked about their educational habits at the beginning of the fall semester.  I was a bit surprised, but then I realized that a number of recent films have promoted youth novels and that the Internet has done a great job encouraging young people to read news items on a regular basis.  The quality of what they had been reading, however, became clear once the diagnostic exams came in.  Again, after their reading revelations, I was a bit surprised, but then I quickly understood why.  It is the classic difference between a bookstore like Barnes and Noble and the St. Mark's Bookstore.  The former gives you a boatload of horse dung and a few items of gold within the feces, and the latter selects only quality books, ensuring that your purchase will be awesome.  The St. Mark's Bookstore exhibits media savvy, and the word savvy has its root in the word "savior."  It is not easy to be a media savior, guiding ourselves and others to the right places.  The majority of us, like my students, have experienced a media blitz of Barnes and Noble-like information for the past 10 years that has not allowed us to understand what conversations we should actually be having.  And, the truth is, in some circles, diversionary media has been a standard for much longer than a decade.

For example, my husband Vincent and I went to the Guggenheim, in September, to see what was touted in many respectable publications as the most amazing light exhibit known to man.  Anyone who knows my artist background, or my tendency to decorate my living spaces with light, knows how much I love light as an art form.  I was incredibly excited to see the James Turrell exhibit.  After waiting for nearly an hour, Vincent and I entered a dark room, with several other patrons and looked at an empty room with two dim yellow bulbs.  After about 60 seconds we all began to the artist, yes, but mainly at ourselves for having been so silly for following the hype.  We believed the conversation that was thrown at us in the media.  This kind of diversionary media has been a norm in the art world for centuries.  We have decided that certain art forms are valuable and we have conversations about them, and any art that takes place outside of exclusionary, elite museum walls is rarely included in the conversation.  It is for this very reason - let me be clear - it is because of bullshit artists like James Turrell that the majority of the population doesn't understand art and has no interest in it.  We might fund our art programs in a better way if we had conversations about artists like Adrian Viajero Román, who combines family history, issues of race and gender, and rarely seen skill into works that take your breath away.

This work is a charcoal drawing of Viajero Román's grandmother;
it is on a box that you can step up into and inside are all her personal
items and there are recordings of her favorite songs playing.
Wow, we can understand it and it inspires us - what a concept!  A woman is at the center of the art and she isn't passively reclined, how refreshing!

Speaking of reclined ladies, we often have a lot of diversionary media shaping our conversations about women, too.  Everyone, for some reason, has found it incredibly important to talk about the Mickey Mouse chicks over and over, as if we still don't understand that the expected trajectory is cutesy all-American girl turns into raging whore.  We act shocked as if we hadn't seen it from Britney, Christina (Xtina), Vanessa (I refuse to link to the nude pics she has online, but you can easily find them), and Selena.  Many of us end up in the same old conversation that basically claims, "Wow, she's being a whore, she should cover up, she's only making White men money."  True, Sinead, true, but isn't it too late for that conversation?  I mean, these women made their own money, too - have you seen Xtina's pad?

Here's what the conversation SHOULD be about:

1. Women should not be made into slaves.  That's what we are until we get paid the same amount as our male counterparts.  The Mickey Mouse girls, the Victoria's Secret girls, pretty much any very famous Hollywood actress, have all made their money by showing us their lady parts.  They're whores and they know it and they probably feel that there aren't many options that are better, and they are right.  Do you know how hard I've had to work to get a living wage out of this world?  It's much harder than licking a wrecking ball, that's for sure.  If women weren't made into slaves, I'm sure less (wrecking) ball licking would happen.

2. We shouldn't insult women for being sexual.  I once saw Billy Idol hump a boxing ring on an awards show.  I've seen Matthew McConaughey's naked bod more times than I can count.  I've seen Viggo Mortensen's penis in  A LOT of movies.  None of these men get talked about the way women who flaunt their sexuality do.  Why?  Oh right, it's because we respect men.  If we can still respect men if they flaunt it, why can't we do the same for women?  It's time we grow up and stop acting crazy every time some young twerk is around.

It's easy to make jokes about that kind of diversionary media, but while some insensitive types might not understand the very serious and grave mechanics behind shaping a shallow conversation around gender roles, even those folks will have to acknowledge how our democracy is at risk when important rallies for our rights are diverted.  Today, there are rallies all over the country in support of immigration reform.  One of those rallies was supposed to take place in Washington, D.C., in the same exact area where someone decided to light himself on fire, supposedly for no reason.  As a result, the rally will be moved to another area in the city.  You can take the conspiracy theory approach on the matter and wonder if the person who chose to light himself on fire diverted attention from a nationwide rally on purpose, but most of us won't go there.  However, it is certain that most folks who decide to Google "Washington, D.C." today or sometime next week will get information on the person who lit himself on fire, or information on a mentally ill woman who drove her car into an off-limits area of the Mall, or the much-hyped Federal Government shutdown.  Regardless of whether these things just happened to coincide or not, the rally will not be the first piece of information that comes up during a search because the other ones seem more important and grave to us.  I hadn't even heard of the rally until yesterday and a Google search would not have likely brought it up easily.  Again, an important event - which marks TWO MILLION people being deported under the Obama administration (more than under any other administration) - has been buried under Barnes and Noble-like diversionary media.

That is a one time event that has been buried, but what happens if entire concepts get buried?  What if we are buried under inane conversations so many times that we stop having certain conversations and ideas altogether?  For decades we have been reading articles that portray teachers as molesting idiots and we have constantly been hearing how our schools are terrible and that we have to conduct major reforms.  These major reforms often involve corporate firms either creating charter schools or creating curricula that is imposed on a wide number of schools and not adjusted for particular populations of students.  We have stopped stating the obvious answers because of the diversionary media that narrows our conversation to nonsense.  Here is how we can fix schools immediately (but for some reason our Federal and State Governments never choose to hear these solutions):

1. Hire more teachers.  We've been cutting the number of teachers even though for the past 20 years we've gone on and on about how we don't have enough teachers.

2. Create smaller classrooms.  Every teacher I know says that the best classrooms have 12-15 students. The link backs the claim up with research - that politicians choose to ignore.  Most of us have 30 or more students in our classrooms.  If we have a troubled kid in a class of 12, her friends will help her because the class develops a unity and a desire to learn.  If we have five troubled kids in a class of 33, the class will have significant problems.

3. Vary teaching methods.  Lecture all the time - no.  Lecture sometimes - yes!  If you create interesting lectures, it teaches students the art of speech-making and it allows students to practice concentrating on a subject for a longer period of time.  Memorization all the time - no.  Memorization sometimes - yes!  It's how we learn basic math and language elements.  Science and experimentation is impossible without memorization.  Everyone knows that!  Phonics instruction for all students is vital.  They stopped that in some places for a while and it was a huge mistake.  Some places allow "creative spelling."  That doesn't work.  I see the damage it does at the college level.  Make kids memorize word parts; that, in conjunction with phonics, will make them amazing spellers.

4. Everyone gets a book.  Even a shitty book.  We can always supplement bad books with better material, but everyone needs a book.  All school age kids should have their own book.  All college age students should be able to afford their books.  Punto.

That's it.  It's as easy as that.  Honestly.  Even in urban areas.  Stop diverting the conversation to the crap they feed you.

And speaking of crap they feed you, please remember that religious organizations, no matter how much you like or hate them, have been treated the worst under this scenario.  We do not have ANY conversations in the media about the value of religion and that is because diversionary media only focuses on the corruption.  There is corruption everywhere, not just in religious organizations. We can't get around that.  In regards to religion, the conversation needs to get away from the rare extremists and instead propose the more inclusive idea of ethics.  Religious books and organizations, regardless of their original purpose, can NOW be used to discuss the idea of ethics.  When I say discuss, I mean it - we are not here to assume what any of these works mean or what these organizations represent.  Heck, our new Pope has taught us that.  We must debate, understand, and accept a variety of interpretations (something my minister father and Buddhist mother have always done - you read right, she's Buddhist AND Christian). All of our religious books are guides for how to live our lives and that is what we should focus on.  All of the books have outdated ideas, and all of the books have great ideas that still hold.  Let's have THAT discussion, please.  How censored is this idea?  Try doing a search on ethical conversations.  The concept is usually relegated to adult professions.  Ethics in education, for example.  Young people are completely excluded.  The concepts are limited to: "They believe this," and "This book says you can't," and "How crazy is it that" blah, blah, blah.  Don't let the diversionary media pigeonhole you into that terrible corner of Barnes and Noble where all of the $1 bargain books and clearance self-help books are.

There's NOTHING there that is a bargain or that will help in any way.

Instead, find the specialized guide.  The ghost of Coliseum Books, per se.  Find people or places that allow you to think of the ideas in the world, or hidden from the world, in a fresh way or in a common sense way.  If you find yourself commenting on what everyone is commenting on in the same limited ways, think of Stevie Wonder's line: "When you say you're in it but not of it/make sure you're not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell."  Be open.  Expand into new territory, or remember the path others have forgotten.

In the end, I'm happy that everyone is really into the shower of media we have out there - the participation is wonderful and necessary.  My hope is that my students take this wonderful enthusiasm and use it to develop fresh perspectives and to uncover old ones that we should have never discarded.  My hope is that they won't be diverted from their ultimate goal: to learn, create, and make the world a much better place than the one they were given.  My hope is that they become media saviors.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Trayvon Martin: An Afro-Latina Perspective

The picture on the left is me when I was in eighth grade.  As a punker, I've changed the color and texture of my hair as often as the color of my blue-black-red lipstick.  I've gotten different reactions from Black, White, and Latino/a people based on the texture of my hair and/or the color of my skin, but once I learned my history, I have never, ever forgotten where my kinky hair comes from: Africa.  It wasn't until I moved to New York, away from Chicago, that I met other Latinos/as like myself, who embrace identifying as Black Latinos/as.

Unfortunately, some Latinos/as, in every shade of skin, from the loveliest ebony to the palest blue-white, never learn about our shared history with African Americans and/or never care to draw connections.  We have many Latinos/as who would like to pretend that all our history comes from Spain or various indigenous populations in the Americas, but that is not true, as the Afro-Latino/a movements across the globe have recently proven. Projects like The Afro-Latin@ Reader made me much more hopeful of achieving a unity among Latinos/as and the wider African Diaspora, but today I find myself in the same place I found myself years ago, when I had to listen to White Latino/a friends spew racist remarks about Black people without realizing that they were insulting me.  I find myself in the same place, listening to my African American friends remind us that George Zimmerman is Latino/a because his mother is Peruvian, and he does not just represent "regular Whites," or his Jewish father's side.  I find myself in between and so incredibly sad that parts of myself, in the greater world, are at odds with each other, when I know by the very fact of my existence that we can be together in peace.

Take a look at this picture:

My cousin, Romelio, Jr., is on the left, then my mother, then my cousin, Dorcas, then me, then the 1/2 German, 1/2 Polish guy, Dennis, I was dating at the time, then my uncle Romelio, Sr.  We look like the United Nations.  Dorcas and I have some of the most visible Black features; Mami, even though she is whiter than most of us, has Black blood and she married my Black father even though her own father, my grandfather, didn't go to the wedding because of it; Romelio, Sr. has features that look Indian (from India, the country) - a recent visit to the Caribbean Museum in Barranquilla, Colombia, revealed to me the large number of folks from India who were brought to South America as indentured servants.  This is how the wonderful diversity in places like Guyana was created; it isn't too difficult to grasp that some of the folks who were in the area of Guyana, on the eastern-most location of South America, migrated west to the areas that are now called Venezuela and Colombia.  My family IS the U.N. (The Museo Caribe has great information on our African heritage, too.)

So, I am deeply hurt when Latinas, like Zimmerman's mother, forget their own history, their own broad noses, their own brown skin,

Gladys Zimmerman.

and breed Latino men like George Zimmerman, Latinos who hate themselves, who hate their history, who hate their own family.  Because that is what we are, my friends of many backgrounds and shades, we are family, just like my own picture up there.

I ask all of you for something that I know might be really hard for some, given the circumstances, but that is entirely necessary for our survival.  I ask that if you are a Latino/a who has always identified as White, or different from Black people, please learn about the history of the Americas and the varied migrations and slave trades that occurred in Central and South America and the Caribbean.  We have no White purity, people.  That is a myth.  If you think you are White because you can trace yourself back to the elite in Spain, I ask that you learn about Spanish history - the Moors invaded Spain and ruled there and we have many Middle Eastern influences.  There is no White purity there, either.

And my Black family, please know that there are Latinos/as who have cried for Trayvon Martin.  I am crying as I write this because my biggest fear is that people in power want to divide all people of color who are family, who have so many common interests, who have a wonderful power when they unify.  Please find your Latino/a friends. I guarantee we will not let you down.  I have no interest in racist Latinos/as and I will not defend their actions.

Thank you for reading.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

God Damn!: How Victoria's Secret and the Music and Film Industries Have ALWAYS Cornered Young Women

I have been so overwhelmed by the politics surrounding gender issues in the United States in the last week.  Not only are we fighting for marriage equality but, in what I believe is a related way, we are fighting for women to be seen in a more complete and accurate way.  Mayhem broke out  this week when Victoria's Secret CFO Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer claimed that girls as young as 15 want to be like older girls who, in the case of VS product, might wear underwear that has "Call Me" on the crotch.  A quick look on the Victoria's Secret FB page - not sure if they've removed the comments of outrage since then - will show how many parents were upset that VS appeared to be sexualizing young teens.  Now, a couple of days later, there are more and more articles trying to quell the anger and, in fact, expressing a different kind of outrage, this time toward parents who were making much ado about nothing, supposedly.  Turns out, the line "Bright Young Things," that takes its cue from the fine apparel found on the former boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, was meant for college-aged girls all along.  In fact, Amanda Marcotte, of Slate, thinks that anyone who was outraged at the issue to begin with is "righteous" and needs to give "teenagers a little freedom to do the growing up that they need to do."  It's okay.  Nothing to worry about. It's older women who will be wearing "Feeling Lucky?" on their asses instead.  

True, such activity has a strong tradition in our country, especially during spring break which, not surprisingly, is when all of this hubbaloo has taken place.  Perhaps getting upset at VS was wrong, or perhaps the reason behind our anger was wrong.  Why are we upset at a company for marketing to our kids, when our kids are already fully aware of what that company sells and have already been sold on the product because every woman who they know uses the product?  When Burgdoerfer claimed that 15 year old girls will copy their older siblings, or even older mothers, he wasn't wrong.  That's Advertising 101.  Perhaps we were only upset by the message because, for once, we could not sit in denial and pretend to be unaware of the reality of our daughters or younger siblings, nieces, students, or friends: advertising, song lyrics, and films are constantly encouraging them to put a suggestive message on their vaginas, one that will remain long after the cheap underwear falls apart.

Here is a photo still from the film "Spring Breakers": 

Here is a photo still from Victoria's Secret's PINK line (which will carry the "Bright Young Things" segment):

There is not much difference between the colors, the focus, or the spirit of the photos, and that is no coincidence.  Mom's were outraged by the suggestive wording of "Call Me" or "Feeling Lucky?" but the supposedly benign PINK line they are familiar with, which many of them might wear themselves, still encourages people to READ YOUR if it were a billboard.  Furthermore, the end result of this two-pronged advertising campaign for spring break - which is actually losing business by as much as 15% - is the same message: have decadent, brainless fun that ends up in meaningless sex.  In reality, some students on spring break want to do more meaningful things with their time.  In Indiana, college students got together during their break to help the less fortunate.  It's as if VS and the film industry want to send a message to young women who actually want to use their time for something worthwhile: DON'T!  Isn't THAT the real issue we have with VS?  Weren't we ALREADY upset with VS when they started taking up prime time television space to air an even DUMBER version of the Miss Universe Pageant, one where the women don't even get to talk once?  Don't tell me that your pre-teen or teenaged daughter hasn't seen the show - she has, and it has influenced her way more than some dumb underwear.

In order to continue the attack on your daughter's - and YOUR - mind, inane interviews in magazines and on websites support the messages in the films and ads.  For example, Selena Gomez, one of the actors in "Spring Breakers," recently reminisced, in warm, dreamy-eyed fashion, in Harper's Bazaar, that her father would take her to Hooters when she was in pigtails and spend half the time with her and half the time with all the cute waitresses that came over.  How sweet.  Can I just thank my father right now for not ever screwing me up like that?  Vanessa Hudgens takes it a step further by creating culture that links with the overall message to young women that they need not think much and should just use their bodies, or let their bodies be used.  "Stop being so clever/You could do much better/You will be alone tonight," are lyrics that imply that using your brains will end up in blue balls, in her new song "$$$ex," which features a video with "Spring Breakers" clips.  She thinks it's "a good date night song."  I suppose that's true, if ear hemorrhaging over dinner is your bag.  But hey, I don't want to knock S&M lovers.

Ford Motors doesn't want to knock S&M lovers, either, as long as the persons tied up are women.  Recently, some ads that had yet to go through the approval stage were leaked and Ford had to apologize for them.  This video news short, from NewsBreaker, describes the ads as "racy" and does not once mention the word "misogynist" or even "sexist."  

Ford Apologizes For Racy Ad Showing Women Bound, Gagged | NewsBreaker | OraTV

In other words, the issue, according to NewsBreaker isn't that the ad depicts three women who are crying and bound and gagged in a trunk, driven by a former Prime Minister.  The issue is that some might find the ad too "sexy."  I never knew that kidnapping and torture were sexy.  I certainly understand that some people like this or that, but the ad does not depict women who are approving of S&M play in any way - they look like they're being driven to warehouse in the middle of nowhere by a creepy murderer.  Not funny, not sexy, not racy. Similarly, the way we have shaped the language around VS behavior is wrong.  It is not that all of a sudden they endangered our young women.  The real issue is that they have always promoted sex in an extremely passive, male-oriented way to ALL WOMEN.  There is absolutely nothing feminist about the VS woman; I don't care how much money the models make.  Should Gloria Steinem have remained a Playboy Bunny?  Perhaps some men might have preferred her that way.

And that is the last issue I will try to tackle.  We know that if a VS catalog comes to the house, if we have a partner at home, he/she might take a gander.  Whatever, we're all human.  That is what keeps us buying the sweatshop-made underwear, no?  We want to be attractive, yes?  I decided a long time ago that I had to be attractive in my own way.  I'm not a superhuman that hasn't succumbed to the pressures of everything I have outlined here - advertising, music, and film - but I try on a regular basis to create my own idea of what is attractive.  To heck with the rest of the world.  In high school, I remember a former friend of mine asked me why I "didn't dress sexy" and my first thought was, "You are such an idiot," but my second thought and my reply was, "I do dress in my own attractive way."  He wanted me to conform to some fantasy that is just so narrow-minded and overused and boring.  He was a victim of Bell Biv Devoe.  Why not grow the dendrites and create some new imagery, for heaven's sake?  But no, as if to underscore the imagery and narrow imaginary that VS and films like "Spring Breakers" promote, the lyrics of our young men, within the appropriated hip hop industry, are so crude, so plain and dull and lifeless, they truly seal the box of that brain-deadening fantasy my high school acquaintance so desperately needed and was trapped in.  Find some of the recent male-written lyrics and images created by people who have big, cold, empty holes in the center of their chests where their souls should reside, here and here and here.  

Vincent and I heard the lyrics of "God Damn," found through the last link, when we sat next to a young man in the train station just yesterday.  We laughed at the inane lyrics quite a bit and tried to mock them when we were far away from the fan, but as a woman, I truly wonder what will happen to such a man who listens to such alienating lyrics.  Will he feel like it's okay to pull a Steubenville on someone?  What will happen to women who buy underwear not for their own pleasure (or, God-forbid, necessity) but because they know they better be sexy for someone else because if they aren't, well, how could they possibly have a good life?  You laugh at that sentence, but that message is all over the media - you know it.  If it's out there, we've absorbed it, like it or not - it's how our brains work, by copying what is in our environments.  Will women who have this message ingrained in their psyche ever allow other possibilities to take hold, other options, other much more exciting adventures OTHER than a spring break filled with alcohol poisoning and shallow "friendships" in the name of supposed freedom? 

The Vanessa Hudgens video starts out with a clip of Selena Gomez's character saying, "This is our chance to see something different."  I wish that it were.  There is NOTHING different about spring break or the messages in the media I've highlighted here.  Something different is a grandfather who sees his granny wife walking in the snow and looks at her with shining eyes because she has given him a lifetime of amazing memories - that is something I've seen my father do over and over and over.  Something different is my dear friend Mario and his partner Bob, who have been together my entire lifetime and who I admire so much for their wit and grace.  Something different is male and female friends creating arts organizations, or helping Sandy victims, or staging plays or writing songs about the Katrina tragedy, or just talking for hours, sharing their lives, no dating drama to be found because it's all about the friendship - which I witness every day with my friends.  Something different is having a husband who will move across state lines in order for his wife to obtain the highest degree possible, no complaints, only support, which is what Vincent did for me (and which I have had the honor to do for him, as well).  Something different  is the relationship between Anel and Erika, two women and partners who I had the honor to meet when in San Antonio.  Watch their story here:


I guess it seems like what I'm writing about isn't different because it is so common in my life, but I assure you, it IS different.  I've worked extremely hard to surround myself with innovative people, with people who have vision and ambition, with people who can see and create a better world.  And THAT is different.  That is the most radical thing anyone can ever do and it is the only thing that ever saves a life bombarded by the common mediocrity of sexism and gender bias.  THAT is what different is.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How the Manhattan Institute Destroyed Counterculture NYC

As artists, Vincent and I love to dress up in silly ways and find other artists to look at, chat with, and get inspired by.  We don't have a lot of time because we both teach all week and always have plenty of papers to grade when we get home, so when we do get to go out and let our freak flags fly, we really want to make it count.  Before we moved away from New York, so that I could earn my Ph.D., we had several areas of downtown Manhattan that we could go to to satisfy this need, in addition to areas of Jersey City and Brooklyn.  Now that we live in NY proper, downtown Manhattan is usually our choice, but for some reason we simply couldn't see and admit what so many people had already written about, what was right before our eyes: there are no freaks in downtown Manhattan.  There we were, all freaked out with no place to go.  Oh sure, we hit Kim's and St. Mark's Bookstore, but what we really wanted was to see people, real live freaks.

Yeah, yeah, we know.  Go into Brooklyn.  I guess what may have kept us out was all the talk about hipsters, but then I thought, well, maybe the word "hipster" is just a derogatory term for artists.  Vincent pointed out that the word "hippie" was used as an insult during the '60s.  I thought to myself, "Who is making up this language and why have artists been kicked away to the outer-boroughs?  Why has it become harder to reach each other now that we don't have a center point to meet in?  Who planned that?"

I didn't think about the issue again until today, when I pulled up a video clip on Wall Street Journal Online, where Kay Hymowitz, of the Manhattan Institute, espouses the virtues of being married, but she only espouses this virtue to 20-somethings who are "uneducated."  Here's the clip:

She literally says that if you only have a couple of years of college under your belt, are in your 20s, and are planning on having a kid, you should actually think of the consequences of your actions and try to be married.  She also says that women who are educated and older don't have to worry about such things.  All of her coded language translates to this: If you are poor and of color, your demographic hasn't been thinking about the real consequences of having kids, and you're a mess, while us educated women who - and she literally says this - may have "internships at Conde' Nast" can pretty much do as we will.  Hymowitz doesn't question the wealthy folks who marry, have kids, divorce, marry again, have more kids, and divorce again.  She goes on and on about the "less educated" women and how they are putting an unnecessary burden on their kids, raising them single, but she doesn't speak of the consequences of the educated and wealthy who raise kids in single-parent households.  Oh, yeah, and I almost forgot, she states - this is a QUOTE - that, "Women in their 20s are, by their very nature, unstable."  If you can even hear anything after that point, she goes on to claim that everyone - she says about 80% of people - want to be married and feel unstable if they aren't.  Well, after hearing that backwards diatribe, I had to find out what this Manhattan Institute is.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a think tank that financially supports the work of a panel of experts who espouse incredibly conservative ideas.  Here is a link to the experts whose work they promote. You'll notice that nearly everyone on the list is of a certain background and/or ethnicity.  The two people of color on the panel are John H. McWhorter, who has written articles like, "Do We Really Need Black History Month?" and "How Hip Hop Holds Blacks Back" and "Why Blacks Don't Need Leaders"; and Avik Roy, who you've seen on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and who wrote the op-ed piece, "Marco Rubio's Impressive Response to Obama's State of the Union Address."  The Manhattan Institute's honored guests have included Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and Clarence Thomas, among many others you'll recognize. The agenda at the Manhattan Institute, in terms of what its scholars are supposed to write about and promote, is what you'd expect.  This article, which was in The New York Times in 1997 (!) highlights a desire to "[savage] open admissions at the City University of New York, [push] hospital privatization, and aggressively [promote] school choice," which translates into promoting charter schools and the voucher system, i.e. privatization of schools.  The article also chronicles the Institute's policy of questioning rent control, which has been all but abolished in NYC.  I want to emphasize that this article, titled "Turning Intellect Into Influence: Promoting Its Ideas, the Manhattan Institute Has Nudged New York Rightward," was written 16 years ago and pretty much everything that the MI set out to do has happened.  It is frightening in its precision.

In order for such an organization to be precise, and to have such complete access to all aspects of media (TV programming, newspapers, online sites) in order to disseminate its agenda, there has to be major funding.  A simple Wiki search - the MI does not reveal its funding on its site - shows that major funding comes from the usual suspects: the Koch Family Foundations, Bristol-Myers Squibb, ExxonMobil, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Merrill Lynch.  Paul Labarique, in his article "The Manhattan Institute, Neoconservatives' Lab," claims that the Institute has set forth to, "eliminate the counterculture of the 60’s and feminism, but above all, to destroy social services and get African-Americans and poor people out of the big cities."  Which brings us back to that kooky lady, Kay Hymowitz, who is clearly just following orders.  Do more women need to get married and not raise kids on their own?  Hell yeah!  Who should they marry?  Men, of course!  Does this count for women who are in the elite classes?  No, of course not!  It's interesting how all of her research fits so perfectly into the agenda of the MI.  I suspect that even if it didn't, the oh-so-credible-scholar would find a way to make it fit the MI agenda.

The Labarique article also brings us back to why I started this blog entry: the freak.  Where are my freaks at?  They have been kicked to the curb, that's where.  I know that this fact has been written about by so many people before me, but it is a scary thing to see exactly how it was done.  Everything changed because articles were written in order to discredit artists and poor people.  Just words on paper or words in cyberspace.  People were kicked out because the elite promoted specific ideas in the media, ideas that even the poor who were being kicked out believed in.  Counterculture ideas, words, people were eliminated, but in order to still feel as though not much had changed, the surface of what they left behind was kept and incorporated into mainstream culture.  The surface parts were mashed up into elite culture - you can find a whole host of online fashion and culture sites that will tell you exactly how much counterculture you are allowed to display.  Refinery, anyone?  What if I don't want to be refined?  What if I want the RAW and BROWN sugar, dig?

What is most frightening, however, is not that this happened in one of the cultural centers of our own country - a center that defines what we read about through its publishing industry, or what we see through its television network centers, or what we hear through its music industry, or what we look like through its fashion and textile industry, and ultimately what we think about through all those industries - yeah, that's hyper-sickening-scary, but what is even scarier is found in the opening line of Labarique's article.  Antony Fisher, the founder of of the Manhattan Institute, founded 89 more institutes, just like the Manhattan Institute, AROUND THE WORLD.  What is Paris like now?  What is Istanbul like?  Or Madrid?  Or maybe even scarier than that is that Fisher isn't even from the United States - he is a "British multimillionaire."  Did we ever become independent from Britain??  Or maybe even scarier is that the predecessor of the term "post-racial" was first published in an article in 1978 (!) by one of the MI scholars, George Gilder.  Ideas, words that we use today, have been formulated by these think tanks that we are unaware even exist.  The next time that you feel like you've done it all on your own, that you have a mind of your own, that you are certain that you came to where you are at because of decisions you made, maybe you should wonder what might have influenced you, what small seed may have been planted in your brain, in your spirit, when you were asleep.

Maybe I have been asleep.  Maybe I finally just woke up and noticed that there are no freaks around me.  Maybe I am totally alone.  Maybe it is better to wear sensible clothing.  Maybe I will have less and easier work as an educator if CUNY stops accepting the wide range of students that it has welcomed in the past.  Maybe Cooper Union will have a better product if students start paying tuition.  Maybe it's true that there is no need for counterculture anymore.  Maybe the wars we are in are just.  Maybe there is no racism anymore.  Maybe there is no sexism anymore.

Or, maybe, sneaky suppression is just as bad as overt repression.  Maybe I'm damn lucky to be living in the Bronx because the word "sensible" has no place in the Bronx and my surroundings keep me honest.  Maybe there IS racism and sexism that continues to win screenwriting awards.  Maybe we still occupy too many countries where we don't speak the language of the people we are supposedly trying to save.  Maybe we are cutting the funding of too many humanities in schools, creating a class of people who have no empathy and have no idea how the arts grows dendrites and dreams that imagine solutions for the future.  Maybe, just maybe, if I continue being a freak and continue sharing my own ideas, maybe the sensible wall of sensible ideas will start to crack, causing other sleeping freaks to notice and kick a brick.

Friday, January 25, 2013

For My Students: An Introduction

Hello Everyone!

I, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta, am very happy to have all of you in my class this semester, whether it is my ESL 3, ENG 11, or ENG 21.  Unfortunately, I will not be able to see you until the third week of the semester because I am recovering from major abdominal surgery--my doctor removed 21 tumors from my abdomen! They were all benign but, obviously, I have to take it easy for a while.  In the meantime, I leave you in the hands of some great educators.  However, I don't want you to wonder who is walking into your class come the third week, so I thought I could introduce myself to you a little bit now.  Is that cool?  Great!

A little bit of background: My father is from Barranquilla, Colombia, which is where Shakira and Sofia Vergara are from, and my mother is from a tiny town in Cuba, the birthplace of mambo, salsa, and Celia Cruz.  I have two brothers who were born in Colombia, but I was the first one born in the U.S. in Chicago.  I grew up in Logan Square, which is a gorgeous neighborhood there.  My favorite things to do in Chicago were to go to punk concerts and dance to house music--Chicago is the birthplace of house!  Here are some of my favorite songs:

Pretty diverse, right?  That is the essence of who I am.  I also like Leontyne Price, who is an opera singer, and Zola Jesus, who is a newer alternative singer.  As an English professor, you can be sure that I love to read, too.  I read everything, from The New York Times, to alternative news sources from around the world, from novels by Junot Diaz, to poetry by Maya Angelou.  I also love graphic novels - one of my favorites was made into the movie, "The Watchmen."

When I was in high school, however, I hated school and I hated my English classes.  I was into art then.  Some of my favorite painters incude Ed Paschke

Ivan Albright

and Candido Veras.

I spent most of my time, then, painting and dancing.  It wasn't until I became a college student, at Columbia College Chicago, that I discovered I could write - three professors within one semester's time told me I should go into the profession.  I ended up graduating with honors in journalism, with a minor in film (another one of my loves!) - not bad for someone who was failing high school English.

For about two years I worked at Chicago's only bilingual newspaper at the time, Extra Community Newspapers, but because I wasn't making much money, I decided to go back to college.  This time, I earned a master's degree in education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  When I graduated in 1999, I moved to New York.  There, I met my husband, Vincent, at a poetry reading in Harlem.  I wrote a lot of poetry and got published for the first time, and several times after.  Still, I was mainly doing adjunct work in community colleges and high schools, which does not pay much.  I decided to try to get my Ph.D.  Vincent and I moved to Texas, of all places, and I earned my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  It took five years, but once I graduated, we moved back to New York and I've worked for CUNY ever since.

Today, I still publish a lot of work, but most of it is academic.  My most recent publication is a chapter in the Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature, seen here:

Other publications include poetry in the NAACP Image Award nominated Check the Rhyme

and one of my favorites, the Cuban American issue of MiPOesias.

Last year I traveled to London to present a paper on various films, and then to Puerto Rico to present a chapter on environmentalism in Latino/a literature.  I had no idea my life would be filled with such blessings.  I owe all of it to my extremely supportive husband, my wonderful friends, and, of course, my viejitos.  Mami and Papi.

Here they are when they got married in Matanzas, Cuba,

and today.

My parents grew up very, very poor, but with HARD WORK and LOTS OF LOVE, they raised me and took care of so many other people, too.  But that is another story.  I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about mine.

I can't wait to meet all of you and learn what your story is!

I'll see you in week three!

Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta