Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Next Stop: First Black President

I didn’t vote. Why bother? Living in the deepest blue part of the bluest state, it’s pretty clear my vote will just be piling in with what will surely be a massive majority. As far as voting for change goes, New York’s ballot was in the box months ago.

Here’s the problem: “Dad, why didn’t you vote for the first black candidate for president?” Bit easier if I was at odds policy-wise (read Colin Powell). Lacking that, I’m left babbling electoral college math that sounds bogus even before it comes out my mouth. It’s a conversation I don’t know how to have. Okay, I voted after all.

It’s hard to believe we’re here — on the verge of electing the first black president. Our subway conductor on Halloween:

Barack Obama!
If you aren’t ready for change, get off the train
Next stop: first black president!

Let’s hope. But let’s also be clear on what it would say about the state of race in America. You need look no further than the current challenges in South Africa to see that electing a black president doesn’t magically generate the so-called post-racial society — particularly when your economy is in shambles.

Still, merely having a black presidential candidate has the nice byproduct of opening the floodgates for thoughtful reflection on race in the national press: places like The Atlantic and The Times. (Heck, even New York Magazine.) In the end, the piece that drives our continuing racial challenges home most clearly is a simple list contrasting Palin and Obama. A sample:

White privilege is when you can get pregnant at seventeen like Bristol Palin and everyone is quick to insist that your life and that of your family is a personal matter, and that no one has a right to judge you or your parents, because “every family has challenges,” even as black and Latino families with similar “challenges” are regularly typified as irresponsible, pathological and arbiters of social decay. (more)

So, it’s important to remember what it would mean to elect the first black president: it’s a statement on race, not a solution to racism. But what a fabulous way to make that statement. It would be a dream fulfilled. And I’ll be able to tell my kid I was part of making it happen. Vote!

We previously wrote about Obama in The Last Black Senator and The Obama Upset. We think these Shamans for Obama are awesome.

Update: And it’s done.

photo taken at the hilarious and pointed Obama08

Dubya’s Last Words

I suppose it’s fitting that during Bush’s last speech to the UN, it’s revealed that his speeches are written out in 36 point font like children’s books. And wth each and every word underlined, too — as if to remind that skipping words is not allowed. Is it all spelled out phonetically, too? I wouldn’t doubt it.

Considering the avalanche of disasters brought about by Bush’s reign, it figures that his outro would be nothing less than the collapse of the American empire. Okay, Ahmadinejad said that, but I think we can all agree that some radical readjustment is in the works.

And back in Washington, the representative from Ohio laid out quite nicely the precise nature of Bush’s final act. Thank God we’ve only 117 days until someone else is running this place. Assuming there’s anything left of it by then.

Of course the way Bush’s speech is written out is likely typical of high profile public speakers (a teleprompter substitute). But, hey, I couldn’t resist. image via nytimes

The Elephant in China’s Room

All hail Chairman Yingying! I love this shot for its juxtaposition of opposites: fun and serious, warm fuzzy and hardcore military. He’s cute, but that cuddly Fuwa is huge, overshadowing everything and everyone. He’s the elephant in the room.

In a lot of ways, China’s public image seems to sport a teflon jacket. Even with the Sichuan schools, even with the food recalls, even with the human rights violations. There’s just something about China’s meteoric rise that makes us forgive (when we shouldn’t). It’s a beautiful place, with a fabulous PR corps. It makes a great story.

And when I talk to thoughtful Chinese about the situation there, they almost always speak with genuine optimism. A recent On The Media interview captured it well:

I know a lot of what we are saying sounds very brainwashed and nationalistic, but actually we know very well what we are talking about. And we know there is something with China that’s not so good. But you should also know that if you compared today China with 50 years ago, it’s already much, much, much better. So give China more time and we have a better China for everybody. Student in Shanghai

But can we afford to wait?

The Resource Rush
What we’re seeing in China is growth on a scale the planet has never seen. And coping with that means Herculean measures. One of those measures is grabbing resources wherever (and however) they can. Specifically, this means places where there’s no audit trail — where China’s “big black hole of data” is met with similar, creating accountability deficit disorder. Enter Fast Company’s deeply important report China in Africa, which provides a peek into the singularity, revealing all kinds of double-dealing, non-living wages, seriously dangerous working conditions, environmental annihilation, and zero oversight. The author puts it this way: “While blood diamonds might be better known, there is also blood copper, blood gold, blood coltan, and blood cobalt.” Resources for the most ruthless.

The All Seeing Eye
A second Herculean effort is happening internally where, in order to manage the insane growth, China (with the help of US contractors) is installing a surveillance apparatus second to none. It’s a story of face tracking lampshades every 10 yards all wired to a central database that knows your every move and your every consort. The party line? It’s designed to manage public assembly and track known criminals under the guise of “if you’re not doing anything bad, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Orwell, anyone? (And, oh yeah, that same technology is starting to show up on US soil.)

The Upside
Of course, there are good things happening in China, too. Take, for example, environmental cleanup innovations that are being developed out of necessity. Most developing nations wait until they’re rich to begin to clean up but, because of scale and impact, China has decided it can’t wait. This is meaningful.

A friend once told me that to truly understand China, we must love her people. The problem as he saw it is that so many in the west can’t separate the 1.3 billion from the tiny fraction that run the place. His gaze didn’t leave mine for a while — he meant this in a deep way; a way I, as a Westerner, am still not entirely sure I understand. But I think part of it is this: just as China is cleaning up environmentally out of necessity, it also needs to give her people a voice out of necessity. That’s the only way China can truly lead the world. And that’s the only way China can repay the countries from which it has taken so much.

Of course, I say this as a citizen of a crumbling democracy whose leaders have exploited (and continue to exploit) Africa in awful ways. My point is that I believe China can find a better way. The sparks are there. Let’s hope they light.

photo via, chart via fastcompany

Not the Dalai Lama

What’s it like to be the Dalai Lama’s brother? Pretty much the same, just less filter. Witness Giant Robot 52, where kid sib Tenzin Choegyal goes awesomely blunt:

GR: At a young age, you, too, were recognized as a reincarnate of an important man, right?

TC: Oh, that’s bullshit. I don’t believe it. From a Buddhist perspective, we are all reborn. But choosing a particular person as someone special and saying he’s a reincarnation of so-and-so is bullshit.

Got that? We all know the 14th Dalai Lama (aka Tenzin Gyatso) and his thoughtful talks about compassion in the modern world (moreso today as he stands in the middle of a renewed Tibetan conflict). Having seen him speak in Central Park and having a Mom who spent a day with him as part of the Buffalo Delegation, I know how easy it is to feel connected to the guy. But you also sense a wry sense of humor lurking just under the surface. For the Dalai Lama, it serves to humanize him. For Choegyal, it makes him hilarious:

Richard Gere is a wonderful person — very simple, modest, and natural with whomever he meets. He’s done a lot for the Tibetan community. And then on the other side of the scale, there’s Steven Seagal. Oh my god. I met him when he came here. He was wearing a funny coat, a Chinese brocade, funny trousers, and funny shoes with a ponytail. I asked him, “Why do you dress in such a peculiar manner?” He didn’t say anything. He’s arrogant and pretends to be a Tibetan reincarnate. But why? He’s a strange man.

Snap. You gotta love this guy. And it makes me totally wish I could be a fly on the wall at the next Tenzin family dinner. Well, there’s always reincarnation!

image via time

The Obama Upset

It’s been a season of upsets. First we were stunned to see massive favorite Roger Federer fully dismantled by Novak Djokovich (who?) in the Aussie Open. Then the “unbeatable” Patriots lose to an unlikely Giants team in a thriller of a Super Bowl. And this Tuesday, Barack might just upset Hillary and get a whole lot closer to being president. Or not.

When it comes down to it, there seems to be little more than a hair’s difference between the two on policy. Sure, we might trust Hillary more on health care because of her work as first lady, and she’s certainly amassed an impressive amount of Hill savvy over the years, but it also gives her that “part of the problem” establishment glow.

If Clinton’s got the inside angle, Obama has claimed the grassroots. It’s telling that nearly every New York subway station features a legion of superyoung Obama supporters spreading his message. (Clinton’s are nowhere in sight?) And the past week saw the one-two punch of artists like Will Adams and Shepard Fairey putting people in the streets. But where’s the experience?

I’ve been on the fence forever. Where Obama truly inspires, it’s Clinton who’s shown she can execute; and diversity wins either way. Lately, though, I’ve come to think we need to dream again. In this age of intensely uninspiring government, we need someone who can make us believe in the executive once more — and remind us of the bigger things. If the past is any guide, that person sure looks like Barack Obama. Let’s hope, then, for yet another upset today.

We previously wrote about Obama in The Last Black Senator and Holidays in Cambodia.

Update: Hey, split down the middle is good, too. :-)

images via obey

Soulful African Photos Tell Stories

The past few weeks have brought a flood of amazing photos from all corners of Africa: South Africa to Kenya, Burkino Faso to Morocco, and more. Such diversity, such beauty, such joy, such hardship.

People Of The Klein Karoo – stunning black & white shots of children and families on the Red River Farm, Western Cape, South Africa

Moroccan Road Trip – Stefan Rohner’s luminous candid photos capture daily life in Morocco (via raul)

Learning in Burkino – the Times had lovely, colorful photos from Burkina Faso for its cover story on aid problems in Africa

Kings of Africa – a three year journey produces wonderfully diverse photos of over 70 descendants of the great African dynasties

Born in Nairobi – capturing the moments after birth in Kenya. Four more amazing shots (one, two, three, four) from the same photographer appear as part of Japan’s Uneo Hikoma Awards.

See also War and Weddings, Mark Brecke’s work documenting genocide in Darfur and elsewhere (previously) and Unphotographable, a meditation on photos lost.

China’s Booming, But Where Are The People?

The one thing I’ll always remember about China is beauty — in the clothing, the architecture, but most of all the people. There seemed to be a story in every face I saw, but the cultural gap (not to mention language) was too wide to traverse. So I’ve used films to see what life is like for a local. Still, that leaves a lot of mysteries unexplained. I want more.

These days, many seem fascinated with what makes China tick, and The Atlantic has been one of the best at feeding that curiosity. (Most recently with their China Issue.) It’s engaging stuff, but it deals largely with big operators (Liam “Mr. China” Casey, Zhang Yue), big factories, and big business. And we’re left wondering about the “regular people” who make those booming operations what they are — the kinds of people I saw on in the backstreets of Beijing and Shanghai, and in countryside villages. Here, we often find them discussed only in aggregate. Like so:

At 8 a.m. in Shenzhen, the young women on the night shift got up from the assembly line, took off the hats and hairnets they had been wearing, and shook out their dark hair. They passed through the metal detector at the door to their workroom (they pass through it going in and coming out) and walked downstairs to the racks where they had left their bikes. They wore red company jackets, as part of their working uniform—and, as an informal uniform, virtually every one wore tight, low-rise blue jeans with embroidery or sequins on the seams. Most of them rode their bikes back to the dormitory; others walked, or walked their bikes, chatting with each other. That evening they would be back at work. Meanwhile, flocks of red-topped, blue-bottomed young women on the day shift filled the road, riding their bikes in.   (full article)

And that’s invariably where the story ends. I wish more writers would pick one of the faces in the crowd and go home with them. See how they live. Meet their families, their roommates. See what they eat, how they think. And then find another worker in a different factory and do the same thing. Or a waitress, or a rickshaw driver, or a welder, or a young artist.

I don’t mean to be overly critical. There’s a huge amount of ground to cover in China and the high-level stories are as good a place to start as any. But I do hope that, before authors like James Fallows leave China, we get just as close with the blood and guts workers (who travel hundreds of miles to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week) as we have with the ultra wealthy captains of industry who employ them. It might be a little grim at times but, to my mind, that’s the only way we can truly begin to see China’s heart, and its soul.

image by cao fei

The Last Black Senator

Barack Obama has been all over the news of late with hints that he may run for president. So, I wondered what the Senate would look like without him. It turns out that, if he leaves, there will be no more black folks in the Senate at all. He is the only black senator — but it doesn’t end there. Digging a bit deeper, I discovered that there have only been 5 African Americans elected to the Senate. Ever.

Give that a minute to sink in. Of the roughly 2700 Senate elections held since 1789, only 6 were won by an African American (Ed Brooke won re-election). That’s .2% or 1/5 of one percentage point. Considering that black folks have made up a fairly steady 10% of the population, this is a pretty serious reminder of how far the land of the free still has to go.

Of course, there are lots of factors that muddy the water. I’m not sure how many black folks were up for election or even ran in primaries. And this doesn’t take into account that there was a long period of time when black folks couldn’t run for any office, let alone Congress.

But none of that changes the fact that the Senate hasn’t seen nearly as many African Americans as it should have and that gives me pause. It also gives me pause that the first black senator, Hiram Revels, resigned his office after serving less than one year. How must he have been treated for him to decide, after making such a dramatic leap for his race, that he should give it all up almost immediately? I can’t imagine.

If the fifth African American senator decides to leave office prematurely, though, it does seem like he might do it for quite a different reason. And I must say that I’m more than happy to lose the last black senator if the result is the first black president. Hot damn.

Update: If you like Obama, check this poster.

with thanks to Mom; photo via Slate

Lady Gets Religion

Christian Lady Liberty, Islamic Lady Liberty. Which is scarier? How about both! Well, save for the fact that Christ Liberty has actually been built in Memphis…

Even though they make equivalently disturbing statements about the encroachment of religion on government, somehow the former strikes me as patently offensive where the latter feels thoughtful. Maybe that’s because I hate freedom. Or maybe it’s that an Islamic takeover of US government is beyond unlikely while the Christian takeover is at our doorstep. All aboard for Jesus Camp!

For more on The Statue of Liberation Through Christ, visit the World Overcomers Ministry. New Liberty is part of the AES Islamic Project. And don’t miss Frontline’s Jesus Factor episode.

Hold the Habeas

Overheard on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me this weekend…

When Democrats said that this bill, in stripping detainees of the right of Habeas Corpus, was potentially violating a legal principle that goes back 900 years to the Magna Carta, President Bush responded by saying he didn’t realize the United States was that old.

But here’s the bright side of the whole thing. The bill is a way of reaching out to our enemies. The president has said they hate us for our freedoms, so getting rid of them is sort of a peace offering.

Gotta laugh sometimes to keep from crying, eh?

Listen to the whole show at and, on a more serious note, don’t forget the fantastic Habeas Schmabeas episode of This American Life. So much for that whole right to a fair trial thing.

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