June 29, 2010 at 4:19 pm (Uncategorized)

Finally, my Indian, Italian, and Suburban New York sides merge.  Thanks to TIME for publishing the “news worthy” arrival of guindians.

My Own Private India

Illustration by John Ueland for TIME

By Joel Stein

I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.

My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime. (See pictures of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park.)

I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate. Were they from some Indian state that got made fun of by all the other Indian states and didn’t want to give up that feeling? Are the malls in India that bad? Did we accidentally keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai?

I called James W. Hughes, policy-school dean at Rutgers University, who explained that Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 immigration law raised immigration caps for non-European countries. LBJ apparently had some weird relationship with Asians in which he liked both inviting them over and going over to Asia to kill them.

After the law passed, when I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison because of its proximity to AT&T, good schools and reasonably priced, if slightly deteriorating, post–WW II housing. For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Eventually, there were enough Indians in Edison to change the culture. At which point my townsfolk started calling the new Edisonians “dot heads.” One kid I knew in high school drove down an Indian-dense street yelling for its residents to “go home to India.” In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if “dot heads” was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.

Unlike some of my friends in the 1980s, I liked a lot of things about the way my town changed: far better restaurants, friends dorky enough to play Dungeons & Dragons with me, restaurant owners who didn’t card us because all white people look old. But sometime after I left, the town became a maze of charmless Indian strip malls and housing developments. Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.

To figure out why it bothered me so much, I talked to a friend of mine from high school, Jun Choi, who just finished a term as mayor of Edison. Choi said that part of what I don’t like about the new Edison is the reduction of wealth, which probably would have been worse without the arrival of so many Indians, many of whom, fittingly for a town called Edison, are inventors and engineers. And no place is immune to change. In the 11 years I lived in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, that area transformed from a place with gangs and hookers to a place with gays and transvestite hookers to a place with artists and no hookers to a place with rich families and, I’m guessing, mistresses who live a lot like hookers. As Choi pointed out, I was a participant in at least one of those changes. We left it at that.

Unlike previous waves of immigrants, who couldn’t fly home or Skype with relatives, Edison’s first Indian generation didn’t quickly assimilate (and give their kids Western names). But if you look at the current Facebook photos of students at my old high school, J.P. Stevens, which would be very creepy of you, you’ll see that, while the population seems at least half Indian, a lot of them look like the Italian Guidos I grew up with in the 1980s: gold chains, gelled hair, unbuttoned shirts. In fact, they are called Guindians. Their assimilation is so wonderfully American that if the Statue of Liberty could shed a tear, she would. Because of the amount of cologne they wear.


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No Dancing Allowed

June 28, 2010 at 6:39 pm (Uncategorized)

DC concert goers know that the District attracts great bands at storied venues like the 9:30 Club, Black Cat, DAR, Velvet Lounge, Iota and others.   The lights, sound, merchandise, bartenders–  all in perfectly working order at our local establishments.  The bands sweat and plead their artistic case to sold-out venues night after night.   The only thing missing from these musical jaunts is a pulse off stage.

It’s not that people don’t enjoy the music or don’t vigorously clap after every song–they do, but for whatever reason Washingtonians refuse to dance at concerts.  They don’t sing along obnoxiously.  They don’t hoot and holler.  Their voices aren’t scratchy and coarse at the end of the show.  They do not collapse in sweat when it’s over.  They don’t look like they are having fun.  Where’s Kevin Bacon when you need him?  If things don’t change I might have my own Brett McKenzie angry dance moment on K Street.

With ticket prices ranging from $10 to $100 live music in DC is not the cheapest activity, not to mention the  “ticketbastard” charges.  I assume most people from the front row to the bleachers want to be there.  After two-ish years and tons of shows, I’ve come to the conclusion that Washingtonians are either a tough crowd,  have a classy sense of audience demeanor, or hate dancing.

Some venues are better than others of course, and concerts with a prominently foreign or gay audience conduct a lot of booty shaking, but shows at DAR are notoriously awkward.  DAR, or Daughters of the American Revolution/Constitution Hall, is a beautiful venue that inspires the contributions of Mayflower families to our American land.  It hosted my graduation and is a perfect place for visiting families to politely clap after boring commencement speeches.  But, rock concerts? Not so much.

And it’s not just because I have bad seats.  At a recent Silversun Pickups show even the front row at DAR seemed to barely bob their heads.  Pigeons in other cities rock out more casually.

Maybe I’m just used to  uncouth crowds that creep on your space, step on your feet, and spill beer down your shirt?  Annoyances I will gladly trade for the indescribable feeling of releasing energy to live music en masse.  At the show, I was the only person in my entire section who stood up and danced for one of my favorite songs.  Alone, with a sprained ankle none-the-less, I felt a little silly for being one of the louder people this half of the Hall.  I tried to not let it ruin my fun.  In seems in DC–professionally and personally– I’m just often dancing to my own beat.

However, there is some good news to dance about these days.  I got a new job offer and believe that the change of pace and will make summer in the capital more pleasant.  In fact, listening to Silversun Pickups play this song I wondered how they knew?

…Well someone said I made a mistake
Kept looking forward on paths sideways
It’s everything that is connected and beautiful
and now I know just where I stand
Seasons always shift too late
Spent too much time now on paths sideways
Everything that is connected and beautiful
and now I know just where I stand
Thank God it’s over….

Let’s dance, yo!

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When Politics is Stranger than Fiction

June 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm (Uncategorized)

Why I love history–check out this interesting read from Global Journalist.

Georgia Hoax: Television Trapped in Politics

By Vadim Nikitin Posted Jun 16 2010


Imedi TV Broadcast
Click here to see the video broadcast by Imedi TV reporting a fake Russian invasion.

On the otherwise uneventful evening of March 13th, hundreds of terrified people spilled out onto the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, clutching their possessions and scrambling for cover. Little did they know that the newscast they had just seen on pro-government Imedi TV, of Russian tanks overrunning their country, was a hoax.

Yet the fake prime-time broadcast – a sort of War of the Worlds remake with Russians instead of Martians – mattered far less for the immediate panic it caused than for the deeply compromising interrelationships it revealed between the media, business and politics in post-Communist Georgia.

“The Georgian broadcast medium has turned into a political actor […] foregoing its primary function to serve as the watchdog in the country,” said Ketevan Khachidze, editor-in-chief of the Georgian Times in an email interview.

Indeed, Caucasus expert Tom De Waal suspects Saakashvili was at least aware of the faux newscast being prepared by Imedi TV, if he did not sign off on it himself.

“Saakashvili is using the Russian threat as a key pillar of his political legitimation,” De Waal says. “Things are going badly for him on several fronts, and something like this helps to rally the nation behind the idea of a Russian threat.”

Another rationale for perpetrating the hoax was to punish opposition members like former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze, who had recently visited Russia. “Putin is the Antichrist as far as Saakashvili is concerned,” De Waal says, “and Burjanadze broke the taboo of talking with the Russian leadership.”

If the reasons behind the broadcast are fairly straightforward, it is unclear why an ostensibly commercial media outlet allowed itself to be used for government propaganda. The fact that Imedi TV, a formerly independent channel, was murkily brought to toe the official line explains the underlying reason for the changing direction of the coverage.

When Imedi’s former owner, the oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, campaigned for the Georgian president’s impeachment in 2007, the government temporarily shut down the station and froze Patarkatsishvili’s assets. After Patarkatsishvili’s sudden death the following year, Imedi was sold to RAK Georgia Holding, a mysterious shell company purporting to be a branch of an Emirati investment group. However, the latter has denied any relationship with Imedi.

Although Imedi’s ownership remains opaque, its editorial position is clearly pro-government. Because the station’s General Director, Giorgi Arveladze, is a former government minister and right-hand man to Saakashvili, Khachidze believes that the channel is being controlled through Arveladze.

Using media manipulation to unite the country against external foes and smear the opposition is a textbook example of what political scientist Andrew Wilson calls “virtual politics”: the widespread use of PR, political techniques and commercial pressures to maintain hollow, astro-turfed democracies in the post-Soviet space.

Although these political tactics were aimed at demonizing Russia, they revealed the Georgian president’s basic similarity to his arch-nemesis Putin. Saakashvili’s evisceration of Imedi almost exactly parallels the Russian strong-man’s own pacification of NTV, a station critical of the government in the past, which in 2001 was forcibly sold to the state oil company Gazprom.

In that way, for all his Western posturing, Saakashvili remains a product of the Soviet – apparatchik mold. “Georgia follows a pattern in the former Soviet Union in which governments try to control or influence the main media outlets,” De Waal says. “Generally it’s a sign that they are trying to consolidate their grip on power.”

De Waal’s assessment of the situation echoes a 2008-report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. It charged the Georgian government with attempts to secure government-friendly ownership and management at national television stations.

The TV hoax unmasked the folly of dividing post-Soviet leaders into pro-Western liberal modernizers and pro-Russian authoritarian backsliders: a false dichotomy, to use Eisenhower’s dictum, between our sons of bitches and theirs which only hindered genuine democratization in the region since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Crucially, the simulated broadcast also illustrated the failure of the colored revolutions that swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the mid 2000s. They promised a new type of government but delivered more of the same. “Saakashvili may have survived this,” De Waal says, “but the notion of a colored revolution as a democratic, people’s revolution has not survived in Georgia.”

And neither has the people’s faith in the media. “There is little trust in the media because people have seen the influence politics is exerting on it,” Khachidze says.

Because modern Georgia is such a young country, could the whole episode simply be a case of growing pains, with the media destined to become independent and transparent as the republic matures into a market democracy?

Certainly, Imedi and Rustavi 2, the two largest (and both pro-government) channels, do not really constitute commercial media organizations, according to Khachidze. “If they were, they would have been oriented to make profits, and they aren’t,” she says. “They owe huge debts in unpaid taxes to the state. Strangely, they were not shut down or face any sanctions from the tax authorities.”

But a transition to a Western style corporate-owned media model does not necessarily promise greater independence either, according to Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal-leaning media watchdog group based in New York. “Private media,” he says, “can often behave the way we would expect state owned media to behave.”

This should not come as surprise to anyone who remembers the largely uncritical way the mainstream U.S. media covered the 2003-invasion in Iraq, (which the CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour later acknowledged).

The radical social critic Boris Kagarlitsky blames such complicity between the media and government on the neoliberalism that post-Soviet republics embrace while struggling to leave overt authoritarianism behind.

It’s just as much about money as power when a complex synergy between financial and governmental elites replaces the old model of brute state control.

“Today, the media are manipulated through market mechanisms and pressures more than through outright censorship,” Kagarlitsky says. Even in Russia, where the media has come under almost total government control, “everything that has occurred has happened in line with market principles.”

Nevertheless, “it’s now very, very hard to fool everybody using the news media given the choices that people have in the digital century,” says W. Joseph Campbell, School of Communication professor at American University. “Most people saw the hoax for what it was – a one-off show that was seriously misguided.” Although only one-fifth of Georgians has Internet access, the Imedi hoax still didn’t come close to matching the panic elicited by the radio broadcast of HG Wells’s story in 1938.

Back then, however, the Martian invaders were conveniently dispatched by a sneaky deus ex machina. Now, citizens of Georgia, Russia and the other post-Soviet republics can count only on themselves to steer their media between the black smoke of state censorship and the red weed of crony capitalism.

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Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger*

June 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm (Uncategorized)

Sunday morning I had a Skype chat/conference call with three lovely ladies: one in Ramallah, one in Kabul, and one in Beijing.  The world is a crazy place and transcontinental flights are a bitch, but it’s nice to know you can catch up simultaneously (and for free) no matter where you wander.  Tip of the Hat to Skype for making friendship without borders! 

And in other less fun communication, I recently had to brave another phone interview.  They are painful.  Wag of the figure at phone interviews!

*Thanks Stephen Colbert!

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DC #1?

June 8, 2010 at 8:36 pm (Uncategorized)

I mentioned this to a native Manhattanite (who had also lived in DC) last Saturday night at a bar in the East Village.  Without skipping a beat she said “because there’s nothing else to do.”  That’s an exaggeration, but overall I do think Washingtonians are way into their biking, kayaking, marathon-running, and Rock Creek Park.  A park which, despite living in DC for about two years, I sadly still haven’t been to.  Here’s to DC’s new number 1 status rubbing off on its most recalcitrant non-native residents!

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I Believe in Nothing Today

June 2, 2010 at 2:28 pm (Uncategorized)

Al And Tipper Gore To Split Up After 40 Years Of Marriage

by Ken Rudin
Think back to the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, the one that nominated Vice President Al Gore for president. The lasting image of the podium: the kiss between Gore and his wife, Tipper, that seemed to last forever.
Al and Tipper Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Stephen Savoia /AP

Forever, as we learn today, does not necessarily mean forever. 

Is nothing sacred?  First, the Jersey Shore goes to Miami and now my favorite political couple splits! Is Global Warming even REAL, Al?* For those of you who were following Bill and Hillary’s rocky marriage in the 90s it’s (to steal a line from a 90s pop song) a bit ironic don’t ya think that their separate peace union has outlasted the Gores’.  Perhaps it’s true that marriages only work, not when there is compromise, but when two people can be fully selfish together?  I don’t know, but in the words of another early 90s pop hair band song/2010 Celebrity Apprentice winner, give me something to believe in!  

*Global Warming IS real–this was a joke for emphasis.  Please do not quote ChaseAndBeenChased questioning the science of global warming.

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