Tag Archives: ethnicity-based nation-state

Catalonia: “…the little boxes of diversity…”

21 Oct

I couldn’t think of a better catch-all phrase for the cocoons identity politics create.  See whole article on the bubble created by all-Catalan media in Guardian.

Catalan pro unionDemonstration supporting Spanish unity in Barcelona. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Repost: Catalonia: “Nationalism effaces the individual…”

1 Oct

…fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity. It divides and discriminates. And it defies the essence of democracy: respect for diversity. Complex identities are a key feature of modern society. [my emphasis] Spain is no exception.”

A brilliant op-ed piece from the Times today by Mario Vargas LLosa, among others, that exposes all the petty narcissism and destructiveness of the orgy of separatist movements that Europe has seen come to the fore in the past few decades: A Threat to Spanish Democracy .”

Catalunya+Prov+EnglishOther money quotes:

“In their attempt to undermine the workings of the constitutional government, Catalan separatists have displayed a remarkable indifference to historical truth. Catalonia was never an independent state. It was never subjected to conquest. And it is not the victim of an authoritarian regime. As a part of the crown of Aragon and later in its own right, Catalonia contributed decisively to making Spain what it has been for over three centuries: an impressive attempt to reconcile unity and diversity — a pioneering effort to integrate different cultures, languages and traditions into a single viable political community.

“Compared with the crises occasioned by the collapse of dictatorships in many European states, Spain’s transition to democracy, following the 1975 death of Francisco Franco, was exemplary, resulting in a democratic constitution granting broad powers to Spain’s autonomous regions. Yet Catalan separatists have glossed over the positive aspects of the transition.”

and:

“But the advent of democracy brought official recognition to Spain’s distinctive cultures, and set the foundations for the autonomy the Catalans enjoy today. Catalonia has its own official language, its own government, its own police force. Catalans endorsed the Constitution overwhelmingly: 90 percent of them voted yes in the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978. The millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, drawn by the beguiling blend of Gothic and Gaudí, attest to the vigor of Catalonia’s culture. The claim that Catalonia’s personality is being stifled and its freedoms oppressed is simply untrue.”

The piece pretty much says it all: the bogus democraticness of separatist rights and the supposed right to self-determination completely debunked as nothing more than “little” nationalisms, which as Vassily Grossman points out in this post …the nationalism of little nations,” can be just as dangerous and certainly as small-minded as that of “bigger” nationalisms.  Ditto this op-ed for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ukraine (both sides), for Belgium, Scotland and, of course, for the most nightmarish manifestation of these tendencies in our time, the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia.  And that’s without even going as far back as the Partition of India, or the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s.

“Complex identities are a key feature of modern society.”  No, no and no…  Complex identities are not just a key feature of modern society, but humanity period, a feature of pre-modern society since the beginning of time.  The roughly two centuries of modernity or “the modern,” which we can probably date from the French Revolution on, is the only period in history when the ethnicity-based nation-state and its brutal, levelling, anti-humanist attempt to “de-complicate” human identity held sway as the predominant form of sociopolitical organization.  It’s just a blip on the screen of history and will soon come to be seen as such.  Multiple cultural identities and stable state political organization can co-exist easily.  Thinking otherwise is an idea whose burial is long overdue.

So, what irritates me most about separatist movements like that of the Catalans is that they’re really retrograde ideologies disguised as liberation movements.  Since the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the autonomous Catalan government had the impudence, I remember, to plaster New York City subway cars with ads that read “Catalonia is a country in Spain,” (???) Catalans have been engaged in a massive public relations campaign to project an image of sophistication, liberalism, bogus hipness, and artistic innovation (including culinary — if you can actually call the molecular nonsense Ferran Adrià put out food…) all meant to be juxtaposed against a clichéd, “Black Legend” stereotype of Spain — under whose repression Catalonia suffers — that’s just plain racist. Catalan nationalism rests mostly on the laurels of its Republican-ness and struggle against the forces of Spanish reaction in the 1930s — Hemmingway and Orwell’s “Homage.”  But the attitude of today’s average Catalan nationalist more resembles that of the average member of Italy’s Northern League, a far-right if not quite fascist but certainly racist bunch of jerks: the same smug sense of superiority towards their co-citizens and the same petit bourgeois self-righteousness about how their wealth and resources get sucked up by the parasitic rest of the country.

There is no convincing evidence that Catalan society is any more liberal or open or sophisticated than the rest of Spain.  See González Iñárritus film “Biutiful” (if you can bear to watch it; I couldn’t make it though a second viewing…but it’s the perfect antidote to Woody Allen’s nauseating “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”), for how much better Catalonia treats its immigrants, for example, including those from poorer parts of Spain, than any other part of Europe, or do some reading up on the discrimination Castillian-speakers in Catalonia suffer.  Catalan independence is not a liberal or liberatory idea; it’s exclusionary and elitist to the core.  The problem is that most of the world falls for the discourses of these movements –the way the West did with Croatia in the 90s — because they’re so good at playing victim.

The finger-flipping at the impressive democratic achievements of Spanish society since 1975 is particularly galling.

See also my Leader of Catalonia Calls for Independence Vote (September 27th).  And  More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or… (September 27th)

catalonia-5-x-3-flag-3475-p

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

My ‘hood: “Finding the American Ideal in Queens” — ‘In Jackson Heights’ from the New Yorker, Richard Brody

4 Nov

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 2.23.44 PM(cick)

Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary film, “In Jackson Heights,” is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future. Credit Photograph courtesy Zipporah Films

(Though this photo shows the 7 train passing through Woodside already and not Jackson Heights — J.H. is Queens’ largest historic district; Woodside is not nearly as attractive.)

Frederick Wiseman’s approach to documentaries is so radically interventionist, his personal imprint is so strong in his choice of subject and his approach to it, that he has no need to show himself in the mirror, or put his voice on the soundtrack, or allow the films’ participants to address him and make viewers aware that he’s there. Though Wiseman is never seen or heard, he’s present in virtually every frame by the force of his analytical conception of the events onscreen. In his new film, “In Jackson Heights,” his powerful and far-reaching ideas come through with the emphatic clarity of a manifesto.

All three words of the title are important: the movie isn’t about Jackson Heights, and it certainly isn’t about the essence or definition of Jackson Heights. It’s a record of some people, places, and events that Wiseman found in Jackson Heights—but what he found there is what he was looking for. “In Jackson Heights” is, for the most part, a non-spontaneous documentary, a documentary by design. Wiseman did some filming in the street, in unplanned and uncontrolled circumstances, of things that took place when he happened to be there. But he didn’t put much of that in the film. Rather, most of the film takes place at meetings that were planned in advance. What Wiseman found in Jackson Heights is people talking, mainly in organized, formalized settings that have their pretext and their agenda defined. He finds civic life taking place in public and quasi-public places—houses of worship, stores, storefront offices of non-profit community organizations, and local governmental offices, including the storefront office of the neighborhood’s City Council representative, Daniel Dromm.

The movie runs more than three hours, and Wiseman lets the talk unfold gradually, with respect for the underlying logic of the matters at hand as well as for the passions that they inspire. The discussions that he films involve such matters as fair labor practices, gentrification, the legal ramifications of urban gardening, the push for change in traffic-safety regulations, school redistricting, police harassment of gay and transgender bar patrons, fear of deportation, citizenship-test study, and the laws and norms to pass a taxi-driver test. In other words, the movie is about the very stuff of life—the ability to make a living, to live in safety, to live without fear, to plan for the future.

The problems that Wiseman finds are local, practical, intimate, but the emotions that he films are grand and tragic. One woman’s account, delivered in a storefront meeting, of her daughter’s harrowing trip through the desert after crossing the border from Mexico has the desperate dramatic coherence of a feature film in itself. A discussion in a barbershop, about the suspected role of a planned Business Improvement District in the displacement of local businesses and the takeover of property by major real-estate investors, has the analytical scope of an investigative opera.

Here, as he has been doing throughout his career, Wiseman films people in walks of life that rarely get them in front of a camera, walks of life that don’t often involve public speaking, and he films them talking. It should be no surprise that they have a lot to say and that they say it engagingly. (As I wrote here recently, it’s a pet peeve of mine that educated filmmakers write working-class characters as stolid, silent types.) Most people do; Wiseman cares enough to look and to listen, to take an interest in what they have to say—and to find the wider societal implications in what they say and to put the ideas along with the people at the center of his film.

That’s why, if the end-of-year lists were to be made today, “In Jackson Heights” would be a contender for Best Screenplay. The fact that its dialogue wasn’t written by Wiseman is irrelevant. He didn’t author the words but he authored their cinematic form, the images and the rhythms, the selection and the context, that rescues them from the stream of time and seemingly sculpts them, in high relief, onscreen. Wiseman (who recorded the sound himself) and the cinematographer John Davey find a splendidly simple visual trope to lend the speech of individuals a public and collective identity: filming discussions for the most part without closeups or speakers isolated in the frame, but, rather, with the speakers set in a composition featuring many people together, as if creating a real-life theatre of political discourse taking place on the wing.

Wiseman highlights the distinctions between neighborhood and community. What he finds in Jackson Heights are communities that seem to have little connection. Latino immigrants meet and speak with each other, as do members of gay-pride organizations; an imam preaches to Muslims in a mosque, a priest preaches to Catholics in a church, Jewish congregants speak to congregants during a service in a synagogue. The only significant public gathering that features a diverse group of attendees is a public meeting regarding traffic safety—and there, Wiseman shows only one speaker, the representative of a nonprofit organization devoted to that purpose. The neighborhood of Jackson Heights appears to be inhabited by members of communities who live side by side but, identifying with their groups, seem to have little contact with those who identify with other groups.

But the crucial connections that spark most of the movie’s discussions are provided by nonprofit organizations and by community organizers who work for them. These organizations that play a central role in the film—whether as the very sites of discussions in their storefront offices or during the visits of organizers to the stores and offices of local merchants—come off as crucial gears in the social and political process. For recent immigrants, these organizations are key points of entry into civic life, the engagement with public institutions as well as the insulation that eases contact with organized forms of public power.

These residents and their organizers aren’t solely protesting or venting grievances—though they’re doing that, too, as well they should. They’re beginning to take part in what comes through, in Wiseman’s view, as the essence of American life, which is its political structures and systems. If there’s a theatre of public life that Wiseman finds, these nonprofit groups are the impresarios who provide the stage for residents who, for the most part, are unconnected from and unrepresented in political life—not least because many aren’t citizens and therefore can’t vote.

The absences in “In Jackson Heights” are as conspicuous as the presences—the absence of relations between communities; the absence of the voices of children and teens (I wonder whether filming in schools might have revealed closer inter-community friendships); the absence of the resented gentrifiers themselves; the absence of resentment overall, including from multigenerational residents against relative newcomers there only for a decade or two.

But the biggest and most conspicuous absence is homes. Wiseman’s subject is political life in the most classical sense—the polis, the life of the city—and his emphasis on urban dwellers’ struggle for a part in the political process, his vision of what surpasses the boundaries of the self-defined community and reaches far beyond local neighborhood, is the idea of equality under the law, fair treatment by the law—in short, the political ideal of the United States. Wiseman’s humanism isn’t narrow in scope; it’s based on the inextricable connection between personal intentions and desires and the societal circumstances that foster or thwart them, the near-constant impingement of the workings of the law on the conduct of daily life, of the inseparability of personal fulfillment and the quest for justice.

“In Jackson Heights” is about America, about the American Dream; it’s a loving depiction of people who pursue it despite mighty obstacles—and of the dream itself, to live without fear of the authorities, to believe that the government will protect one’s interests fairly, to believe in the prospect of a better life through one’s own labors. But, as Wiseman also makes clear, the system that makes personal progress possible is a legal system of fair and just conditions, not utterly unconstrained ones; it depends not on the rhetoric of boundless possibilities but on the definition of legitimate ones,.

The underlying subject of “In Jackson Heights” is the meaning of the “unum” in “E pluribus unum.” It isn’t, as this year’s Presidential-campaign xenophobes would have it, conformity to some preëxisting national culture that, given the nation’s immigrant origins, it would be absurd to call nativist. The plural is culture; the unifier is the political system itself: devotion to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to the exercise of the rights that it guarantees, and to the responsibilities and protections that it affirms. What Wiseman saw in Jackson Heights could perhaps have been found elsewhere, and what he filmed there may not even be the most salient aspects of Jackson Heights. Rather, what he found in Jackson Heights is, as the film meticulously, intellectually, allusively, yet ardently shows, a crucial aspect of American experience, a working-out on film of the American democratic ideal.

(And here’s what Jackson Heights really looks like, or at least my street and Roosevelt Avenue under the El.  (click on all)

IMG_0946 IMG_0949

roosevelt-avenue-jackson-heights-little-india-micro-neighborhoods-nyc-untapped-cities-brennan-ortiz

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Catalonia: “Nationalism effaces the individual…”

7 Nov

…fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity. It divides and discriminates. And it defies the essence of democracy: respect for diversity. Complex identities are a key feature of modern society. [my emphasis] Spain is no exception.”

A brilliant op-ed piece from the Times today by Mario Vargas LLosa, among others, that exposes all the petty narcissism and destructiveness of the orgy of separatist movements that Europe has seen come to the fore in the past few decades: A Threat to Spanish Democracy .”

Catalunya+Prov+EnglishOther money quotes:

“In their attempt to undermine the workings of the constitutional government, Catalan separatists have displayed a remarkable indifference to historical truth. Catalonia was never an independent state. It was never subjected to conquest. And it is not the victim of an authoritarian regime. As a part of the crown of Aragon and later in its own right, Catalonia contributed decisively to making Spain what it has been for over three centuries: an impressive attempt to reconcile unity and diversity — a pioneering effort to integrate different cultures, languages and traditions into a single viable political community.

“Compared with the crises occasioned by the collapse of dictatorships in many European states, Spain’s transition to democracy, following the 1975 death of Francisco Franco, was exemplary, resulting in a democratic constitution granting broad powers to Spain’s autonomous regions. Yet Catalan separatists have glossed over the positive aspects of the transition.”

and:

“But the advent of democracy brought official recognition to Spain’s distinctive cultures, and set the foundations for the autonomy the Catalans enjoy today. Catalonia has its own official language, its own government, its own police force. Catalans endorsed the Constitution overwhelmingly: 90 percent of them voted yes in the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978. The millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, drawn by the beguiling blend of Gothic and Gaudí, attest to the vigor of Catalonia’s culture. The claim that Catalonia’s personality is being stifled and its freedoms oppressed is simply untrue.”

The piece pretty much says it all: the bogus democraticness of separatist rights and the supposed right to self-determination completely debunked as nothing more than “little” nationalisms, which as Vassily Grossman points out in this post …the nationalism of little nations,” can be just as dangerous and certainly as small-minded as that of “bigger” nationalisms.  Ditto this op-ed for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ukraine (both sides), for Belgium, Scotland and, of course, for the most nightmarish manifestation of these tendencies in our time, the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia.  And that’s without even going as far back as the Partition of India, or the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s.

“Complex identities are a key feature of modern society.”  No, no and no…  Complex identities are not just a key feature of modern society, but humanity period, a feature of pre-modern society since the beginning of time.  The roughly two centuries of modernity or “the modern,” which we can probably date from the French Revolution on, is the only period in history when the ethnicity-based nation-state and its brutal, levelling, anti-humanist attempt to “de-complicate” human identity held sway as the predominant form of sociopolitical organization.  It’s just a blip on the screen of history and will soon come to be seen as such.  Multiple cultural identities and stable state political organization can co-exist easily.  Thinking otherwise is an idea whose burial is long overdue.

So, what irritates me most about separatist movements like that of the Catalans is that they’re really retrograde ideologies disguised as liberation movements.  Since the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the autonomous Catalan government had the impudence, I remember, to plaster New York City subway cars with ads that read “Catalonia is a country in Spain,” (???) Catalans have been engaged in a massive public relations campaign to project an image of sophistication, liberalism, bogus hipness, and artistic innovation (including culinary — if you can actually call the molecular nonsense Ferran Adrià put out food…) all meant to be juxtaposed against a clichéd, “Black Legend” stereotype of Spain — under whose repression Catalonia suffers — that’s just plain racist. Catalan nationalism rests mostly on the laurels of its Republican-ness and struggle against the forces of Spanish reaction in the 1930s — Hemmingway and Orwell’s “Homage.”  But the attitude of today’s average Catalan nationalist more resembles that of the average member of Italy’s Northern League, a far-right if not quite fascist but certainly racist bunch of jerks: the same smug sense of superiority towards their co-citizens and the same petit bourgeois self-righteousness about how their wealth and resources get sucked up by the parasitic rest of the country.

There is no convincing evidence that Catalan society is any more liberal or open or sophisticated than the rest of Spain.  See González Iñárritus film “Biutiful” (if you can bear to watch it; I couldn’t make it though a second viewing…but it’s the perfect antidote to Woody Allen’s nauseating “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”), for how much better Catalonia treats its immigrants, for example, including those from poorer parts of Spain, than any other part of Europe, or do some reading up on the discrimination Castillian-speakers in Catalonia suffer.  Catalan independence is not a liberal or liberatory idea; it’s exclusionary and elitist to the core.  The problem is that most of the world falls for the discourses of these movements –the way the West did with Croatia in the 90s — because they’re so good at playing victim.

The finger-flipping at the impressive democratic achievements of Spanish society since 1975 is particularly galling.

See also my Leader of Catalonia Calls for Independence Vote (September 27th).  And  More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or… (September 27th)


catalonia-5-x-3-flag-3475-p

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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