Friday, February 23, 2007

Black is the new White

The words ‘black’ and ‘white’ are no longer restricted to race. They have become, for better or worse, reflective of political ideology. And this new phenomenon is best understood by the differing reactions to Barak Obama’s presidential bid. The question raised everywhere is: how will Obama define himself? He has black roots, but has grown up in elite circles. So whom does he represent then? But the larger question is: how has it been possible that Obama’s star has risen so quickly, and that it is within the reach of a Black man to become the next president of the United States?

The answer may lie in the fact that the US’s large White majority, and indeed the mainstream press, have supported Obama because although he is Black, his politics are construed as White. As Debra J. Dickerson puts it in Salon, “Black, in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics.” Thus, Obama, who has a White mother and a Kenyan father, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia as a child, might be Black in appearance, but not in experience. His life would be more comparable to Whites, Asian immigrants and African Americans. Dickenson continues, “(America is) not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You’re replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened.”

This precise slant in perception that Obama is a safe Black candidate because he can be trusted, and trusted because the White majority knows his experiences, makes his appeal even more complex. Criticisms closely follow adulations, as Democrat Bobby L. Rush puts it, Obama is a Harvard elitist who is out of touch with the concerns of workaday African-Americans. Obama challenged Rush in 2000 for his first Congressional seat. Obama lost.

The question in the media then is, what about the Black vote? It is not just the community’s opinion of Obama, many of whom are proud of him and support him, but the vote is divided because Hillary Clinton is a favourite among Blacks. Toni Morrison once dubbed Hillary’s husband, Bill, as the country’s “first Black president” and she demonstrates a similar goodwill towards Hillary as well. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found in a focus group of 10 Black women that eight named Hillary Clinton their political hero. And a popular theory doing the rounds of Black radio, is that Obama is a favoured candidate because choosing a ‘Black’ president by the predominantly White majority could redeem America in the eyes of the world, will not help him much either. Another fear is this: just like Tiger Woods has, Obama too, could become a public figure that rises above the question of race. And if this is the case, the question within the Black community is, will he protect Black interests when in effect he is not really a Black politician?

So, in essence, the question comes back: is Obama a Black man with White politics? And has America embraced a Black man because he is essentially White (politically)? Between a woman and a Black man, polls have shown that Americans are warming up to electing either to the highest office in the land.

However, it has been easier for women — as Reverend Jesse Jackson put it, “All evidence is that a white female has an advantage over a black male — for reasons of our cultural heritage. It’s easier — emphatically so.” Jackson himself ran for president in 1984 and 1988, and lost both times.

But Obama’s speeches on the campaign trail indicate that he knows when to switch gear between Black and White politics. At Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC, he told a nearly all-Black audience of about 2000, “At every turn in our history, there’s been somebody who said we can’t. I’m here to tell you, Yes we can.” He received thunderous applause and left like a rock star.

Can he?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

full speed ahead

Allow me to make a semi- personal entry, because I’ve been fluttering about like a neurotic butterfly, yo-yoing from utter confusion to utter clarity. The problem with me is that I have too many thoughts spinning about in my head, and way too much energy, which at some point or the other, ends up being a deadly cocktail. Oh, and cocktails. But that’s for a whole new post.

So, I was at this party a while ago and there was this some pretty great music which I hadn’t heard. Now that I have appropriated my dad’s communicator (and no longer need to jot down stray thoughts on napkins when at a bar), I made a note about how music is the soundtrack of our lives, and how experimentation in music is a reflection of different social movements, many times political in nature and so on. The world has parallel lives, and I was wondering how different the connection must be for the composer/band and the groupie – both who love it equally passionately. The way a person behaves about music says a lot about them. The ones who judge you for not being as musically literate as they are, or have their refined taste, are the worst offenders. I don’t think I am friends with any of those. And with good reason I say.

There is a difference between perception and reality. Ask me, I can build up an entire situation in my head -- or better yet, ask my friends, I drive them crazy with my theories and hypotheses (it’s a wonder they still indulge me) – and find that I was actually wasting some very valuable energy. But there is also some merit in that because I find I learn something about myself – and having considered all eventualities, I find dealing with things and moving on when they actually happen much easier. And, the most important is that I figure out that no matter what drama is going on in my life, work and friends are the one focus you should never lose, because they are what keep you going.

Anyway, I’ve often wondered if it’s strange that I talk to myself. I do it all the time, even if there are people around. I do it at work too – I think people are getting used to me. I suspect its far more common than I think (perhaps not in the presence of other people) but it’s not even possible that people who are sitting alone mulling over something do it soundlessly, in their minds alone?

I mean, my brain is so far developed (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) that I actually believe I have a separate sub conscious life. I’ve had entire conversations with people in my dreams that I needed to in real life, I’ve even spent quality time with them in dreams (all of which I remember) that when I wake up, things are better. How crazy does that make me? I’m not sure. My mother has told me that a lot of my Kashmiri relatives are actually crazy, so maybe there’s something there!!

I guess, what I’m asking is, how do you make decisions? What’s the process you go through? But I have discovered, at the end of the day, instinct is the way to go. Even though I’m one of the most impatient people I know, and that’s something I am really trying to work at, trusting yourself is the best way.

Wow, aren’t I fucking preachy today? Ok just to get back in the game I’ll also add that despite all the buzz that I&B Minister banned AXN on a whim because he was offended by the ‘World’s Sexiest ads’ – this is the real story – AXN was sent notices about five times to which it did not respond and that is why it was banned for a limited time. In fact other channels have had similar problems and have gone to the I&B Ministry and settled the matter.

I guess scratching below the surface is always a good thing.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Cyber space multipliers

Going online has given traditional media a fresh lease of life

The Court of First Instance in Brussels had ruled on February 13 that Google’s practice of syndicating newspaper headlines along with snippets of text to link to articles, constituted an infringement of Belgium’s copyright law. The newspaper in question did not have objections to being linked on Google but to the fact that it was not being paid enough. One would imagine, given the pace at which Google is growing, that newspapers would realise the benefits of allowing Google to link to them at nominal prices. The notion of copyright infringement needs to be revisited because the publicity and awareness that follow from a site such as Google will in fact propel newspapers, such as the Belgian one, to international fame and bring them more profit than any fee paid by Google could.

The same can be said of books. Google’s idea of putting entire books online will not slow down print sales, because new technology does not necessarily mean replacing the old; it would be a complementary process. While the iPod may have replaced the Discman, the music industry has seen a boom in the long run. This can be attested by the experiment with streaming television shows online. Initially, networks were worried that with illegal downloads of their episodes available, people would stop watching television. But, instead, it generated new interest and increased viewership because people who had to miss a particular TV show could still get to watch it later. DVD sales of TV shows have sky-rocketed.

So networks such as Fox, which initially tried to prevent downloads of its shows, including The OC, on the internet, switched gear. It now allows its viewers to stream episodes online before they appear on TV. The tactic seems to have worked for Fox, as viewers not only watch it again the next day, but the buzz created about the episode draws new viewers. And the advertisers have also moved to a sort of embedded advertising, where brands are becoming more and more visible in the movie/programme, because people are increasingly impatient about sitting through traditional ad spots.

Media consumption is changing very fast. Viewers now have the choice of getting what they want, when they want it. In the US, you can watch TV on your mobile phones, Sky TV in the UK allows you to choose from a list of movies and TV shows and so on. Demand for content is high, especially because delivery mechanisms seem to grow by the day. Given the changing nature of the media, firms like Fox and Google which learnt to adapt are the ones who are front-runners in the industry today.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

another scramble in the sun?

Presidents Chirac, Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are all going to retire soon, creating a power vacuum in the world stage. The question is, will their successors be guaranteed positions as world leaders? The United States, in particular, has lost the respect of the world community through its misguided unilateral actions, and the next president could bear the brunt of it. American columnists have already begun to apologise on America’s behalf. After the World Economic Forum at Davos, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that it appeared as if other countries were beginning to move beyond the United States, but at the same time warned that the world economy does need a ‘leader’ to manage it. David Brooks, in The New York Times, made the case that despite failures in Iraq; the US will continue to remain a world leader.

But there are other moves being made around the globe, most especially China’s heavy investments in Africa which are worth keeping track of. China is treating Africa as a business investment – the money that is going into the continent does not come with political strings attached. For the Africans, many of whom feel that the West has closed its doors to it, this is a relief. The International Herald Leader worked with the Global Issues Research Agency of the Xinhua News Agency for research into African perceptions towards China. One of the more interesting findings was that Africa believes that China upholds justice – it respects small countries and does not impose on them or interfere in their domestic affairs. This is significant because it directly contrasts the money that comes in from Western countries, and also the IMF and World Bank, who actively interfere in the country on the promise of better government and health, and are yet to deliver.

In effect, what we see in Africa is the ‘alternate’ model of development. Looking at other countries simply as a market opportunity and not interfering in domestic matters. If Chinese investment in Africa continues along this path, then Africa will acquire the tools to pull itself out of its chronic poverty. So the next step would be for Beijing to transfer technology and skills along with money, and for Africans to start owning significant shares of Chinese funded projects. (As the Chinese proverb goes: ‘It is better to learn to fish rather than be given fish’.)

The US needs to take stock of what is going on and enter the game as a competitor, with the same rules. For example, in the case of Sudan, China has largely stayed out of human rights issues and only treated the country as a source of petroleum. In contrast, the United States has regarded Sudan mainly as an Islamic government with gross humanitarian abuses.

Another interesting aspect of this development model is the Arabic world’s reaction to these developments. Unlike the dominant opinion about the hypocrisy of the West who ultimately put their own interests first, China has been viewed with less suspicion. Mohammed Lattif, an official in the Asia Division of the Egypt Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The Arabic world did not regard China as the threat to the world, instead, we take it as an important force to help the world have peace and stabilization. China balances the international power.”

It has already been pointed out in the US that because of its pre-occupation with the Middle East, it has lost out on investment potentials in Asia – a gap that China is all too happy to fill. The Heritage Foundation, a US think-tank, has already worked out a responsive strategy, so that the US does not lose its status as world leader to China. The strategy involves the promotion of human rights, democracy and governance, but at the same time, aims to develop energy resources in Africa and also work in partnership with new allies, such as Latin America.

The quiet re-positioning of China and the US also brings forth the question of the importance of democracy. China is communist. The West does not understand its end game in Africa. But at the same time, despite being a democracy, the actions of the US have not been perceived favourably in the Middle East, Africa, South America and so on. It appears that the economic model of development, without a moralistic lecture and pre conditions attached, is gaining ground. Democracy clearly does not have the same value everywhere, and in the end economics seems to win. If the US wants to maintain its position as world leader, it will have to keep up with China and allow countries to run their own course domestically. The invisible hand will have to stay strictly economic.

Chinese realism is a direct contrast to American idealism. The current trend might well be indicating that the form of government is not important, only respect as a business partner. It is not necessary to have a democratic government to have a vibrant market. Unless the US follows suit, it might well be overtaken by China in the race for world leader.

Friday, February 09, 2007

middle east crabs

Ashura is a very important religious festival for the Shia's in Iraq. A few days ago, at its climax, a suicide bomber killed 19 people. The sectarian attacks going on in Iraq need to be assessed properly so as to understand the impact they are going to play in intra-Muslim relations across the region. Like the Catholics and Protestants before them, these ongoing wars of religion threaten to burn down the Middle East, unless, like their Christian counterparts, they come to some sort of lasting peace agreement. A recent three day conference held in Doha, Qatar, 'Conference for Dialogue among Islamic School of Thoughts’ to address the growing divide between the Sunni and Shia, only served to highlight their differences that have grown due to the lethal mix of religion and politics in the region.

The majority of the world's Muslims are Sunni, only about 10-15 per cent of the 1.6 billion are Shia. However, most of the Shia are centered in the Middle East itself – you won't find any in Indonesia, Nigeria or Senegal – and this makes numbers in the ME fairly balanced between the two sects. They are a majority in Iran and Iraq, and historically, outside of Iran they have always been treated as a minority, whatever their numbers have been. One must also remember that Iran is the only non- Arab state in the region, while pre-dominantly Shia in terms of religion, its people are Persian.

Now, when it comes to Iraq, the Sunni's were in control under Saddam Hussein, although they were a minority. With its recent conversion to democracy, the Shia have emerged as winners. However, sectarian violence has not made this readjustment easy. Perhaps the Shia did not expect the ferocity of Sunni resistance to this transfer of power. However, if carried forward through voting and public participation, Iraq could be a model for how the relationship between the Sunni's and Shia should develop -- it could be the first Shia Arab country.

However, nothing is as simple as it seems. Powers around Iraq have vested interested in who maintains the balance of power. Take for instance the two big players – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran most certainly wants the Shia to regain control because it would like another Shia ally in the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would want the Sunni's to retain control (because, among other factors, they are Sunni, and have always kept their Shia minority in check, and, moreover, they would not want to come up against a united Iran-Iraq). In fact, reportedly, the King of Saudi Arabia told Dick Cheney that if the US does pull out of Iraq, then Saudi Arabia is going to back the Sunni's in Iraq.

Daggers have been drawn for a while. When, recently, a top Saudi cleric issued a fatwa against 'the rejectionists' (the Shia) calling them the Islamic nation's worst sect, two things happened. One, that it was an indication that tensions are in fact on the rise. The other that no one followed this statement up with a denouncement (except for obligatory eyebrow raising in the Western media) is very indicative of the acceptance of where this conflict is headed.

Further, proxy wars in the region do not help matters either. In Palestine, Shia are a negligible number. In the country, the two political groups, Hamas and Fateh (both Sunni) came together to make a democratic government work. But progress dissolved into violence. One of the reasons is that Hamas is been increasingly being viewed as a tool of Iran (and therefore Shia in character.

Again, when the Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers in the summer, catapulting Israel and Lebanon into a devastating war, similar accusations were made. In fact, a former secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheik Subhi al-Tufeili, has gone on record to criticise the organisation as a tool for Iran.

The Sunni- Shia question becomes even more complex. Arab arguments about Lebanon today center more on regime conflict than Sunni- Shia. And Middle East commentators believe that despite the conflict between them in Iraq, it appears that the appeal of the Shia Hezbollah movement is increasing. Al-Jazeera, described as a Sunni channel, has been sympathetic to the Shia.

But is there a real threat by the Shia to the Sunni world? Iran's actions (and proxy wars) certainly indicate that the gap is very wide. But Arab commentators have also begun linking anti- Shia sentiments to American foreign policy. Is it true that mainly pro-American 'moderate' Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have driven this trend? American position refutes this saying their concern is Iran, not the Shia.

But the hanging of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni dictator in a Shia state, changed the dynamic again. Should the Shia have been able to come into power democratically? Hussein's dying curse of Iran certainly did not help matters. States are moving along sectarian lines, and not state lines. And if there is a 30 years war between the Sunnis and Shia in the making (or perhaps underway), then suggestions that like the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that ended the strife between the Catholics and Protestants, the Middle East also needs to be reintroduced to the concept of being sovereign nations and a modern international system are apt. Otherwise, like crabs, they will keep pulling each other down.