Entries from September 2008 ↓

What to do, what to do, what to do…

I am acutely aware that my blogging has fallen way off lately. I could blame it on my Facebook addiction, but that would be only partly true.

Truth is, there are so many things happening nowadays and so little available time in my day to write a cogent thought that it would be pointless for me to try to comment on “the news.” You can get it all elsewhere anyway.

So I’m going to try to refocus this space on less time sensitive writing, probably around arts and entertainment news and reviews and other goings on around New York…provided I have time to actually go out and see things. Stay tuned. 

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The whole world is watching

The world’s verdict will be harsh if the US rejects the man it yearns for

An America that disdains Obama for his global support risks turning current anti-Bush feeling into something far worse

by Jonathan Freedland, from The Guardian, Wednesday September 10 2008

The feeling is familiar. I had it four years ago and four years before that: a sinking feeling in the stomach. It’s a kind of physical pessimism which says: “It’s happening again. The Democrats are about to lose an election they should win – and it could not matter more.”

In my head, I’m not as anxious for Barack Obama’s chances as I was for John Kerry’s in 2004 or Al Gore’s in 2000. He is a better candidate than both put together, and all the empirical evidence says this year favours Democrats more than any since 1976. But still, I can’t shake off the gloom.

Look at yesterday’s opinion polls, which have John McCain either in a dead heat with Obama or narrowly ahead. Given the well-documented tendency of African-American candidates to perform better in polls than in elections – thanks to people who say they will vote for a black man but don’t – this suggests Obama is now trailing badly. More troubling was the ABC News-Washington Post survey which found McCain ahead among white women by 53% to 41%. Two weeks ago, Obama had a 15% lead among women. There is only one explanation for that turnaround, and it was not McCain’s tranquilliser of a convention speech: Obama’s lead has been crushed by the Palin bounce.

So you can understand my pessimism. But it’s now combined with a rising frustration. I watch as the Democrats stumble, uncertain how to take on Sarah Palin. Fight too hard, and the Republican machine, echoed by the ditto-heads in the conservative commentariat on talk radio and cable TV, will brand Democrats sexist, elitist snobs, patronising a small-town woman. Do nothing, and Palin’s rise will continue unchecked, her novelty making even Obama look stale, her star power energising and motivating the Republican base.

So somehow Palin slips out of reach, no revelation – no matter how jaw-dropping or career-ending were it applied to a normal candidate – doing sufficient damage to slow her apparent march to power, dragging the charisma-deprived McCain behind her.

We know one of Palin’s first acts as mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska was to ask the librarian the procedure for banning books. Oh, but that was a “rhetorical” question, says the McCain-Palin campaign. We know Palin is not telling the truth when she says she was against the notorious $400m “Bridge to Nowhere” project in Alaska – in fact, she campaigned for it – but she keeps repeating the claim anyway. She denounces the dipping of snouts in the Washington trough – but hired costly lobbyists to make sure Alaska got a bigger helping of federal dollars than any other state.

She claims to be a fiscal conservative, but left Wasilla saddled with debts it had never had before. She even seems to have claimed “per diem” allowances – taxpayers’ money meant for out-of-town travel – when she was staying in her own house.

Yet somehow none of this is yet leaving a dent. The result is that a politician who conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan calls a “Christianist” – seeking to politicise Christianity the way Islamists politicise Islam – could soon be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Remember, this is a woman who once addressed a church congregation, saying of her work as governor – transport, policing and education – “really all of that stuff doesn’t do any good if the people of Alaska’s heart isn’t right with God”.

If Sarah Palin defies the conventional wisdom that says elections are determined by the top of the ticket, and somehow wins this for McCain, what will be the reaction? Yes, blue-state America will go into mourning once again, feeling estranged in its own country. A generation of young Americans – who back Obama in big numbers – will turn cynical, concluding that politics doesn’t work after all. And, most depressing, many African-Americans will decide that if even Barack Obama – with all his conspicuous gifts – could not win, then no black man can ever be elected president.

But what of the rest of the world? This is the reaction I fear most. For Obama has stirred an excitement around the globe unmatched by any American politician in living memory. Polling in Germany, France, Britain and Russia shows that Obama would win by whopping majorities, with the pattern repeated in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. If November 4 were a global ballot, Obama would win it handsomely. If the free world could choose its leader, it would be Barack Obama.

The crowd of 200,000 that rallied to hear him in Berlin in July did so not only because of his charisma, but also because they know he, like the majority of the world’s population, opposed the Iraq war. McCain supported it, peddling the lie that Saddam was linked to 9/11. Non-Americans sense that Obama will not ride roughshod over the international system but will treat alliances and global institutions seriously: McCain wants to bypass the United Nations in favour of a US-friendly League of Democracies. McCain might talk a good game on climate change, but a repeated floor chant at the Republican convention was “Drill, baby, drill!”, as if the solution to global warming were not a radical rethink of the US’s entire energy system but more offshore oil rigs.

If Americans choose McCain, they will be turning their back on the rest of the world, choosing to show us four more years of the Bush-Cheney finger. And I predict a deeply unpleasant shift.

Until now, anti-Americanism has been exaggerated and much misunderstood: outside a leftist hardcore, it has mostly been anti-Bushism, opposition to this specific administration. But if McCain wins in November, that might well change. Suddenly Europeans and others will conclude that their dispute is with not only one ruling clique, but Americans themselves. For it will have been the American people, not the politicians, who will have passed up a once-in-a-generation chance for a fresh start – a fresh start the world is yearning for.

And the manner of that decision will matter, too. If it is deemed to have been about race – that Obama was rejected because of his colour – the world’s verdict will be harsh. In that circumstance, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote recently, international opinion would conclude that “the United States had its day, but in the end couldn’t put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race”.

Even if it’s not ethnic prejudice, but some other aspect of the culture wars, that proves decisive, the point still holds. For America to make a decision as grave as this one – while the planet boils and with the US fighting two wars – on the trivial basis that a hockey mom is likable and seems down to earth, would be to convey a lack of seriousness, a fleeing from reality, that does indeed suggest a nation in, to quote Weisberg, “historical decline”. Let’s not forget, McCain’s campaign manager boasts that this election is “not about the issues.”

Of course I know that even to mention Obama’s support around the world is to hurt him. Incredibly, that large Berlin crowd damaged Obama at home, branding him the “candidate of Europe” and making him seem less of a patriotic American. But what does that say about today’s America, that the world’s esteem is now unwanted? If Americans reject Obama, they will be sending the clearest possible message to the rest of us – and, make no mistake, we shall hear it.

· freedland@guardian.co.uk

What I Remember…

Originally posted September 11, 2003.

What I remember most about September 11 was that it started out as just a beautiful day weather wise. Not too hot, not too cold, a picture perfect blue sky and not a cloud in sight. Simply gorgeous.

I woke up excited because it was election day. The party primaries were being held, and that year because of term limits, the entire New York City government was going to be overhauled. After too many damn years of Giuliani we would get a new mayor, public advocate, comptroller, borough presidents and almost the entire city council. I had been active in a brand new political organization, the Out People of Color Political Action Club and we had made our first endorsements and were aggressively trying to get out behind our candidates. So I wanted to start my day by getting to the polls to cast my vote before heading downtown to work.

On any other day I leave my apartment building, walk west to Broadway then down five blocks to take the 9 train to my office. But my polling station was a block east. After voting, I thought it was too much trouble to retrace my steps, so decided to continue east another block and take the local C train to work instead. It would place me about the same distance from my office, just on another street, and I’d get a different perspective on the morning commute.

The train pulled into the station at 8th Avenue and 25th Street at about 8:50 am. I climbed the stairs to the street and saw a group of people standing in the intersection, all looking southward. I looked up and saw a clear view of the Twin Towers. However the North Tower had a gaping hole in it and smoke was slowly billowing out.

A crossing guard mentioned that a plane had just hit the building. My first thought was to the story of the airplane that hit the Empire State Building sometime back in the 1940’s. But that happened during a fog. This was a clear day. I also thought, maybe it was a small private plane like a Cessna, but then as I stared I realized that gaping whole was several stories wide. I looked at my watch, it was now five minutes to 9, and I remember thinking, “I just hope not too many people have gotten to work yet.”

I had a 10:30 training session to conduct with a client over in Brooklyn and needed to get to my office, but I still wanted to find out more about what was going on. When I arrived, none of my co-workers were even aware that the plane had hit. We didn’t have a tv or radio in our area, so I tried the only way I knew how, the Internet. Nothing there yet.

I continued to prepare for my appointment when a few minutes later another co-worker came through with information that a second plane had hit the other tower. Shock and disbelief was my reaction, with fear creeping up fast. This was not an accident and we all realized that instantly.

My office was on the 9th Floor, but our main office was up on 12, so many of us went up there where there was a tv set in the kitchen. We got news on that showed the smoking buildings and told us whatever they knew, which wasn’t much. Outside, you could hear sirens racing down 7th Avenue, and a palpable fear gripped everyone in the room. Outside our kitchen window we have a clear and unobstructed view of the Empire State Building just a few blocks over, and no one knew if that would be another target.

As can be expected when you have little to no information, speculation runs rampant. As word that a third plane had struck the Pentagon down in Washington, we knew we were under attack, but from who? How many more were coming? When and where? All the while there was no one telling us what the hell was happening and what to do to be safe.

As a staff of social service workers who have a responsibility to help other people through crises, we tried to keep brave faces on, but tears and just-below-the-surface hysteria were getting the best of us. A consultant we used who was in to conduct a training that day, was in near panic. Her company office was in the Towers and her co-workers were all back there. I clearly recall wondering if I was going to die that day. I thought about how at 41 years old I still had things I wanted to do, but no certainty at that moment I’d ever get a chance to do them. I thought about how I don’t have any family in New York and that I might not get a chance to say goodbye to my loved ones. We just didn’t know what was happening and how long it would continue.

There is a blurriness to my memory now as to what happened between the time the plane hit the Pentagon and the 10:00 hour when we were told we could go home. We were all just trying to get information and figure out what to do. The subways had been shut down and bridges and tunnels closed, so traffic was not going in or out of NYC at all. Ever the responsible one, I tried to contact my 10:30 appointment to tell them I wouldn’t be able to get there, but apparently they had already vacated or just not come in because I only got voicemail. I would find out days later, the husband of one of the people I was to meet with narrowly got out of the Towers alive. Also, had I left for my appointment, my train to Brooklyn would have taken me directly under the World Trade Center.

Again, with blurry recollection, I remember being up in the office kitchen with everyone else, as we watched the tv images of the first Tower collapsing. Screaming, crying and wide-eyed amazement was all we could manage. I felt my heart racing but my breath unable to keep pace. What in the world was happening. This was like a very bad dream, a very scary movie I didn’t want to see any more. What else was going to happen?

They told us to go home. There was nothing we could do there and if we had family, surely we’d want to be with them now. I don’t remember if we had to walk down 12 flights or if elevators were still operating, but I wound up on the 26th Street side of the building with a co-worker. She and I both lived way uptown and had no idea how we were getting home. We decided we’d walk to 6th Avenue to see if we could get the #5 bus.

As we got close to the intersection, a wave of people began running south, stopping to look up. We ran too to see what was up, and as I got there, a cloud of dust and debris was forming at the top of the remaining tower. An image that can only be described as surreal unfolded before my eyes as the second tower collapsed onto itself, one floor at a time, reduced to rubble in what were mere seconds. Cries of “Oh my God!” and “Oh shit!” seemed to be automatic responses from everyone present. Sadness and rage overtook people on the street. My co-worker began to cry, and I tried vainly to comfort her while tears streamed down my own face.

I looked at the gaping hole in the skyline where two 110 story buildings had once stood and it was as if someone was playing a cruel trick on us. Those buildings were just there a few hours earlier. And what happened to all the people inside? It was too horrible to imagine.

The thing that sticks out the most now about the long walk home that day is that unless you were there, you have no idea how frightened everyone was. Pictures of the masses of people walking cannot convey the emotional tension that gripped the city. Those of us on the street probably had the least information of anyone in the country. To top it off, cellphones and pay phones weren’t working. Their antennas and switching equipment were all located in the Towers. Many local tv and radio stations lost their signals as well. We had no information except the knowledge that we’d been victims of some sort of terrorist attack by unknown attackers.

New York streets are always crowded, but at 10:45 that morning, they were jam-packed. The eery part of it was everyone seemed to be walking in the same direction, and EVERYONE was having the same conversation. You could eavesdrop on any two people and hear discussion of the same topic. That just doesn’t happen.

Along the route, bank ATM machines and supermarkets had long lines. Cash and provisions were being acquired for the unforeseeable future. Parents were arriving at schools to get their kids. Instant carpools were being formed by strangers all headed to the same vicinity.

My frustration at not being able to reach family was abated when I remembered my two-way pager. I stopped around 62nd Street and tapped out emails to my brothers in Delaware and Maryland letting them know I was ok, but very scared. Several blocks later I got replies, and learned later that they had reached other family that I could not.

Arriving home hours later, the rest of my day was spent in confusion, exhaustion, anger, depression, all of which would be compounded several times over in the weeks and months that followed. The media was no help, replaying images of the burning buildings over and over again, insensitive to the trauma so many of us had faced.

I remember the thankless search for loved ones, and how any blank wall in the city became a bulletin board for “Missing” and “Have you seen…” posters put up by the family and friends of those who worked in the Towers. They hung onto hope that somehow their family members had gotten out and were someplace safe. But as the days and weeks passed, and reality set in, these posters became memorial sites for all those who had died that day.

Last year I was very deliberately vacationing out of the country on this date because I wasn’t ready for the onslaught of remembrances. I had only just then stopped having dreams about seeing the tower collapsing.

Two years later, I know I’m not completely over it, but I’m a little better.

Scared yet?

McCain Palin 3