Monday, September 30, 2013

J Street

"President Obama convinced Putin to give up his nuclear weapons by getting him (Putin) to see that it was in his interest to do so." Thus said vice president Joe Biden at the J Street Conference's keynote giving credence to my own comments two weeks ago about Putin's Machiavellian behavior.

In any case, the J Street Conference of September 2013 is definitely a different place from the one that I attended in March 2012 or in February 2011. For one thing, more people, over 3000 of them. The ballroom that held the student session in 2012 could now barely hold a western"regional breakout." With a total of 3000 participants and almost 900 students, the J Street conference has transformed to one of the largest events in organized American Jewish life.

Furthermore, the event had become much more serious. A snaking security checkpoint preceded an appearance by the vice-president, but even before then-an army of staff (many of whom I no longer know) displayed an attitude of "professional" stiffness towards the crowds which they directed. Of course, the coincidence of the conference with the Iran talks and Middle East peace process injected a chilling sense of power politics into conference sessions on this issue.

Most importantly, the conference's focus on J Street's "pro-Israel" credentials, which shared the stage at previous conferences with a steadfast emphasis on concern for human rights and the occupation, clearly trumpeted in this latest meeting, whether in the militaristic opening speech of Tzipi Livni or the pandering keynote address by the Vice President. It is sad for me, as a Jew who has long sought a Jewish arena that could expand the conversation beyond the steadfast pro-Israel bind. Though expecting to relive a dashing quest of youthful activism, I ended  watching from the sidelines as a hardened cynic.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Structural "racism": an analysis (in the American context)

Like any college student at a prestigious research or liberal arts institution, my Freshman year introduced me to new political and sociological vocabulary terms of a heated nature.
"Gender." "Construct." "Imperialism" all rang from the posters of left-wing campus groups and sounded from the lecture halls of the Freshman humanities' "cluster" course. But perhaps none struck me more than "structural racism."
The theory? That America remains (40 years after the Civil Rights movement), a society stratified between those who are "black" and those who are "white," with the former continuing to face de facto stigmatization as a crime-associated, dangerous or intellectually-lacking element (and lacking the opportunity outside the inner-city ghetto). "Brown-" or "yellow-" skinned immigrants face similar ostracism unless they conform to the white standards, behaviorally, culturally and socially.
Maybe it is the fact that having grown up in a multicultural city as the son of an Asian mother and Chinese father, I thought that the "r-word" belonged to a different time and place. Maybe it was my social scientist urge to reject (for meaningful politics) any conceptualization that could not be quantified or neutralized.
Generally, I shunned this usage "racism" as a hyperbolic foil for any slights or aggrevations experienced by minority groups.
Of course, having an Indian-American acting student as my roommate my junior year made me realize the prevailing standard of "whiteness" in the film industry. Moreover, my trip to France last summer exposed me to slurs not against "Americans" but "Chinamen."
Simultaneously, the trial of Trayvon Martin and instances such as the shooting of Jordan Davis (CNNarticle) have exposed me to the dominant society's unease with the black male as courses covering work such as John Hagedorn's A World of Gangs.
But as argued by critical race theorists, I find the theory of "structural racism" problematically not because it is not true or relevant per say but because it conflates (one might say confuses) racial prejudice towards non-white Americans with the unique socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by America's African-American community.
To specify the trend at which I'm gettingat, I instance RaceFiles' Scott Nakagawa, who describes "blackness" as a "fulcrum" around which white racism against all "people of color" (read Asians and Hispanics) evolves. (read Nakagawa racefiles
And yet there is a distinction.
On the one hand, prejudice against physically "yellow" or "dark-skinned" people can be seen as reflecting a majority self-distancing from those who appear phenotypically distinct. (e.g. a national news' Asian-American news anchor had to change her facial appearance to be more relatable to her audience) That "whiteness" should be regarded the phenotypical standard in America reflects that white-skinned individuals constitute not merely the most economically established but numerically-dominant group in American society.
However,  immigrants from Asia (and even some from Latin America) who climb the economic ladder and settle in the suburbs (with the car) manage to gain a certain "American" middle-class status deemed proper acceptability by white Americans perceiving of America as a "land" of immigrants.
In contrast, as many critical race theorists point out, certain racial groups (particularly African-Americans) face a clearly lower-status position compared to whites based on figures such as average income (lower for the minority group than for whites) and incarceration rates (higher for the minority group). Speaking African American Vernacular English or behaving in a stereotypically "African-American" fashion casts even the lightest-slommed individual in a negative light. (Carbado, Acting White 48)
 Critical Race adherents point to a history of institutionalized discrimination, with the white majority denying-if not depriving-these minority groups of basic civil and economic rights well into the twentieth century (e.g. through the slavery and sharecropping systems in the former case and the reservation system in the latter).
That over 300 years of marginalization by white society might be responsible for modern-day "racial" stratification should not be seen as surprising. The more reasonable question should be what should the majority-white society do to rectify such a racial divide.
Historical discrimination against African-Americans (and to a lesser extent native Americans in the West and hispanics in the Southwest) has consisted of political disenfranchisement, social exclusion (e.g. segregated schooling) and economic deprivation. (namely through systems of slavery or sharecopping that denied workers payment for their labor).
Political disenfranchisement effectively ended in the 1960s, when (first) the Voting Rights Act and then the 24th Amendment outlawed tactics (such as the poll tax) used to hinder minority voting.
Around the same time, the actvism of the Civil Rights movement brought attention to the social exclusion of non-white minorities, spurring legislation that outlawed segregation (e.g. Brown vs. Board and the Civil Rights Act) as well as cautious anti-discriminatory measures. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the first affirmative action programs).
Much of the debate over Civil Rights in recent years has focused on the supposedly more-intrusive aspects of social legislation (most notably affirmative action), affirming a portrait of racism as a social ill (e.g. based on exclusion or prejudice) rather than a political or economic one.
And yet, the truly unresolved component of historical "racism" is the economic one.
Following the Civil War, radical abolitionists supported granting each freed (male) slave "forty acres and a mule" (See source) but such plans faded with the rollback of southern Reconstruction. Later, during the (Lyndon) Johnson administration, War on Poverty programs such as HeadStart and the Food Stamp program targeted minority income disparities under a more generalistic "color-blind" umbrella, but the effects were minimized in the wake of Reagan-era government cutbacks (see source) and the withering away of America's blue-collar sector.
Prior to the Civil Rights Era (and the northward Great Migration), the African-American community did not "lag" within a capitalistic economy but was bound by law (through slave "purchases" or sharecropping "contracts) within a feudalistic one. The lack of compensation for the (fair, market) wage or land ownership "lost" through slavery or even sharecropping puts the US in a backwards light compared to other industrialized nations (which mostly initiated measures of land reform upon the "end of serfdom").
The ultimate "fulcrum" of America's race hierarchy thus is the result of "racism" but rather essentially defined not by race but by a situation of serfdom.
Another name will have to apply.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Restless night

Its 4 in the morning,
the night runs still.
But under the covers,
a vibration.

A second ticks,
a neuron throbs.
my heart beats expectantly,
waiting to slow.

My legs want to spring,
My eyes want to see,
my body wants life
but I want nothing.

These stupid flashbacks,
a classmate's comments,
a chicken dinner-
all delay
the onset of a dream

Tomorrow has come
tonight still bides
the conscience shudders
before the flight of time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Russia and the Kerry-Lavrov agreement: the desire for stability

Since John Kerry reached an agreement to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week, an extensive debate has emerged over whether the United States conceded its interests to those of a rival state.
  While some accuse Kerry of conceding to Moscow a decisive role in the dismantling process and sparing its ally of a US-led military intervention( others have praised him for sparing the United States of a costly and unpopular conflict and fulfilling humanitarian commitments.

Less widely discussed, however is an indication that Russia's is willing to reign in the ambitions of its Syrian ally (and the use of the latter's most potent weapon)  out of a interest for a durable settlement
In an interview with TIME magazine, Andrei Klimov, the chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, noted that the Syrian government had to be "pushed hard" a deal that would eliminate one of the most potent weapons in its cache. (
In describing the Russian rationale for forwarding the negotiation process, Klimov downplayed the benefits to the Assad regime , instead emphasizing Russia's desire to resolve a conflict which is "right near our (Russia's) borders2."
Though Russia's role as a primary arms supplier of the Assad regime3 seemingly undermines such assertion, the concerns expressed by Klimov are logical, given that Syria lies a mere 500 miles from Russia's volatile Caucasian frontier.
For one thing, the trajectory of events in Syria so far has seen the strengthening of Islamist groups-such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Al Nusra front ( -at the expense of genuine pro-democracy activists. This is a  result both of support for the former faction by Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar 5, eager for an opportunity to "check" an ally of rival Iran, and the increased polarization along sectarian divisions between the Alawi Shiites, like the Assad family, and Syria's Sunni majority (which had been carefully cultivated by Al-Assad when in power for the purpose of staving off the prospect of a unified opposition) .6
Since bearing witness to bitter separatist rebellions in the 1990s, Russian Federal Republics such as Chechnya and Dagestan have seen a growth of fundamentalist Salafism amongst their indigenous populations.4  Not surprisingly, polls by the Pew organization show that ordinary Russians worry more about radical Islam than any other major political concern (Pew facttank) and Vladimir Putin played lip service to this fear in his now-infamous New York Times op-ed from last week, in which he noted that Russian nationals have been present amongst the jihadist forces in Syria. (washington post)
 Even more worrying to the Kremlin, strategic allies of Russia such as Turkey (a crucial link in the supply line of Russian petroleum8) and Azerbaijan (a Commonwealth of Independent state member and major exporter of natural gas to Russia (worldpolreview)) stand in the frontline of the Syrian crisis and face the potential for greater destabilization from the conflict-through sectarian polarization(e.g. both Turkey and Azerbaijan have long been beset by tensions between Sunni- and Shia-aligned sects (see NYT , 10)) or an unmanageable influx of refugees (Al-monitor). And one can't forget troubled Egypt, the second most-popular destination for Russian tourists. (Tourismreview)
Though fear of Islamism may reinforce Russian support for Assad (brookings) it also negatively disposes Russia to grandstanding actions (e.g. Assad's chemical weapons use) that may escalate and radicalize the conflict-encouraging the spread of Sunni-Shia sectarianism and fundamentalism far beyond Syria's borders (e.g. through Saudi or Iranian military intervention or Islamic hijacking of chemical weapons' stockpiles). 

It should be added that one of the strongest motives underlying Russia's support of Syria is a desire-a core pillar of Putin era foreign policy-to restore Russia's status as a great power on the international stage11: upon reaching the negotiation table, Russia gains enough to give (more) than a little in working towards a constructive permanent settlement. Indeed, recent concerns about a faltering economy and corruption at home only give Putin a greater incentive as a man who can "get things done."

This is not to ignore the very tangible stake that Russia has in preserving the Assad regime (which include over 20 billion dollars worth of Russian business investments and a military alliance dating back to Soviet times). 11
But this does not make it any less willing to negotiate-even with its geopolitical rival such as the US- to reign in Assad where his actions threaten instability.
It should be added that the United States shares Russia's concerns about Islamist involvement in the Syrian opposition (e.g. Washington has labeled the Al-Nusra Front a "terrorist organization12"). A complete removal of Assad, moreover, would likely impair the security of Israel and ultimately America by resulting in an anarchic (Afghan/Lebanese style) fragmentation of the country along sectarian or political lines of the type that is conducive to breeding to terrorism.  (a means Daily Beast).
Contrary to typical American perception, diplomacy with Russia on the Syrian crisis offers a potential for a win-win situation. Should the Kerry-Lavrov plan proceed according to schedule, it provides a model for negotiation that could be applied to the conflict itself.