Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Black Gold Magic=Blue Magic

What used to be greenback magic is no longer. Jay-Z now has incorporated a plain and simple truth into his post-retirement MO. Flossing a phat wad of 500 Euro notes, he too realizes what most truly astute financial gurus acknowledged long ago. The dollar's supremacy as the world's top foreign reserve currency is fast fading. In his Blue Magic video, Jay-Z reiterates a truth that I revealed one year ago after having read a fabulous book called Petrodollar Warfare, which had typically been labeled as a collection of conspiracy theories.

The slippage in the value of the dollar has been long awaited in many economic circles. Due to irresponsible tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration and due to a fiscally reckless war machine, America is pissing away its financial health. We used to be a sound fiscal entity with a decent credit rating. W has done a far worse job than even the average American (with horrendously bad judgment in the credit department) would do. While the debt may eventually be easier to pay off, and while the sinking dollar may help out the gargantuan trade deficit, it will serve ultimately to decrease the overall standard of living in the US because it diminishes our capacity to purchase goods produced in other countries. Since demand for dollars is a huge part of why the US indeed has such a high standard of living in the first place, this whole mess is irreversible. The vicious cycle is unleashed.

Petrodollars in decline
There are voices on the geopolitical circuit demanding that oil no longer simply be denominated in dollars. Iran and Venezuela are leading this anti-petrodollar charge. Ultimately, pricing oil with a basket of currencies would tremendously decrease the demand for dollars, pushing the currency even further into the ground. Reserve banks throughout the world now believe that holding a basket of currencies will best insulate them from the risk associated with putting all their pennies/centimes in one basket. While I know whom to blame for horrendous fiscal mismanagement in my country, I, along with every other American who relies on the strength of the dollar to sustain purchasing power, will suffer the harsh consequences. The oil companies, on the other hand, are laughing at Blue Magic all the way to the bank.

MTV Arabia
For his part, Jay-Z deserves some air time on MTV's new Arabic language channel, which just went on the air this past weekend! Audiences in the Middle East will better understand the extent to which cultural norms reflect geopolitical truths. Jay-Z may be no Ben Bernanke, but his dough stacks speak far louder than any Fed Chairman's voicebox.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Multihued Multitudes of Mumbaikars

My experience thus far in Mumbai has encouraged me to ponder and act in ways that I have not previously been compelled to comport myself. The brazen attitude that one must adopt in order to board a second-class coach during rush hour is something that you cannot develop prior to actually being here. The adjustment to sheer volume of human beings takes some time. In fact, perhaps living in such a congested, clogged, and crowded metropolis might not be at all desirable in the long term. However, the human truths that can be accumulated by living the metropolitan grind are so far worth the struggle. the first reality with which one must become accustomed in this town. With a metro population of around 18 million bodies, that's something like 36 million each of ears, eyes, and kidneys. 180 million toes and fingers. 18 million souls. The average density in Greater Mumbai, which is the name given to the city itself and which does not include the population of the whole urban agglomeration, is something like 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. This absolutely staggering density of human habitation, while not close to the 170,000 inhabitants per square kilometer in the Lower East Side of NY in 1905, is considerably higher than 50,000 people per sqkm in many parts of the city. While sheer volume of people is no way to judge quality of life or ease of transport throughout a city, the congestion that plagues Mumbai is a function of a vast inability to cope with staggering population growth.

Map of Population Density by Country
Selected Urban Population Densities

Of three other world cities whose population densities in certain incredibly packed areas rival Mumbai's (Hong Kong, Cairo, and Shanghai), perhaps only Cairo would strike the average visitor as more overwhelming, due to a number of factors, including poverty stats, crime, and general overcrowding. Yet, Mumbai does not have a crime problem. Crime is a subject that will be dealt with in later entries, but for all intents and purposes, crime is not on the short list of perennial urban difficulties in India. Poverty and general overcrowding top the list of most daunting urban challenges in this Island City. Mumbai is strikingly civil, despite its chaotic traffic interchanges, overflowing trains, and reckless rickshaws. The humans who inhabit this dazzling metropolis do not carry on with the sort of anger and embitterment that would characterize a city inhabited by New Yorker-Americans in a town almost 1/4 the size of New York, at the gateway to a country with well over 3X the population of the United States, with an area less than 1/3 the size of the continental US. Americans would kill each other if they were confined to conditions that Indians tolerate. Period. A tiny fraction of the space. A tiny fraction of the wealth. Yet, Indians get by, eking out lives with their big hearts and impossibly charming demeanors. caste and religion, age and gender, language and education are astounding. Indians, contrary to what foreigners usually expect when coming to India, are of a range of divergent types. The demographic divisions that separate Indians from each other are on a level that Westerners often cannot appreciate. The endless list of tribes (7% of the overall population), formerly untouchable "Dalit" castes (16%) are positively endless. The manner with which a woman folds her saree and how a man conducts his head wiggle and where one goes to acknowledge humility before a higher power are things that vary with inconceivable range. a gift and a curse. While Indians have experienced a horrific calamity several times - first and most notably during the Partition with Pakistan in 1947, the dream of a unified cultural whole lives on. Whether unified behind the notion of Hindutva or behind the national cricketeer squad, somehow the nation clunks along as a mostly coherent amalgamation of socio-linguistic communities. The several thousands of caste groups (jatis) retain the sense of tribal distinctiveness that was more or less always a part of life on the subcontinent, yet this ancestral heritage is in certain key ways losing its grip on the modernizing, globalizing, and Indianizing system. India works. India works hard. She works hard to make progress as a cohesive expression of national will. I have no concept of how this is possible. What sort of cultural constitution makes this possible at such a grand scale? Although China has several hundred million more people, I dare say India's task of keeping its far more variegated communities unified is a far more improbable task. a concept that Thomas Friedman recently attempted to address in a recent column on the release of a cheap new Tata motor vehicle that will aim to inundate first-time car purchasers with an unbeatable bargain. At a mere 1 lakh (100,000 Rupees = $2,500), this vehicle will permit masses of middle-class Indians to drive to work, drive to class, drive to the collective neoliberal paradise, which in other words, is a congested ecological catastrophe. While I have not always agreed with Friedman's often neocon and/or neoliberal tendencies, I found that his green streaks shone through on this piece. No, No, Tata

His fundamental point was that clean mass mobility must trump over the near-term rush to develop, market, and compete. Without more concern for the long-term consequences of increasingly clogged roadways, railways, and sidewalks, Mumbai will begin to burst. Cheaper cars will mean more demand for petroleum, more pollution, and more traffic. Although the egalitarian impulse embedded in all of us would have us believe that all Indians have the right to drive their own cars 25 miles a day wherever they please in the same careless way that Americans parade their motor vehicles around asphalt mazes. But, the plain truth is that if all Indians were granted this so-called right to own a car, India would cease to be. I agree with Friedman's assertion that Indians must somehow jump over the car step in the evolution of transport. Build more rail lines, enact legislation to decrease the number of vehicles permitted into the city, and reverse densification-redevelopment policies that threaten to destroy any remaining semblance of urban sanity.

Dolor, depravity, destruction, delapidation...find their way into Dharavi's complex existence because this heart-shaped area of the city is Asia's biggest slum, by most estimates. Slum life is a mode of survival, reproduction, and employment unto itself - entirely the topic of another entry. But, the dreadful extremes that exist in Mumbai are embodied by the continued prosperity of its notoriously gargantuan slum. After two visits to this vibrant disaster, I have simply become more confused about human suffering and about man's capacity to cope with the most disgusting and degraded circumstances. Dharavi is Mumbai at its best and its worst. Mumbai gone horribly wrong yet Mumbai that tries, triumphs, and turns over. Another day, another dollar and a dream.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Greetings from Hindustan & Updates!!!

After a significant respite from these bloglines, this scribe is now back at the silver-tinged keyboard. I arrived three and a half weeks ago in Mumbai and have been settling down here since then to do research on caste mobility issues in this metropolis as part of a Fulbright grant. I am doing my project in conjunction with folks at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Before I jump into issues of vital concern to the subcontinent, I will devote a few paragraphs to thoughts I contemplated over the course of the past few months...

Burning Man Redux
Although I enjoyed a highly transformative experience at last year's Burning Man, I did not have the opportunity to attend the 2007 event at Black Rock City in the northwestern corner of Nevada. Ultimately, this year I am better off not having invested the spiritual, fiscal, and physical resources necessary to participate in the festival of countercultural self-reliance and psychedelic madness. I decided that, after having listening to accounts by several friends who did indeed make it to the playa, that my virgin burner experience was more or less like a virgin sex fling or a virgin cocaine ride. The first time always seems to be the most supreme. Two virgin burners reported times of their lives, much the same as I experienced last year. However, a trustworthy 2nd time burner reminded me that ecologically and musically, Burning Man has a long way to go.

The ecological category is the most errant for a festival which pretends to highlight not just the philosophical subtleties of nature parties and the aesthetic richness of contemporary psychedelic art. The shameful reality of the festival is that attendees believe that politically and socially, they are engaging in a revolutionary critique about man and his environment. In truth, man is at least as wasteful at Burning Man as elsewhere, despite the fact that this year's was not-so-aptly titled Green Man. Although corporate green interests had the chance to display their products (admittedly in a very modest Burning Man fashion), the rampant waste of fuel continues. The most conspicuous example of this profligacy was the true finale of the festival, in which the Uchronians wasted a massive oil derrick in a barrage of crackers and glee. Ostensibly, the fuel burnt was not capable of being used for practical purposes AND the organizers "offset" their otherwise unthinkable wastefulness with the purchase of carbon credits. Yet, I don't buy into this ridiculous thinking. The fire and apocalypse produced by the explosion was a pyromaniac's paradise, but I do not see how this activity fits into the Green Man theme. Burning Man should try for a less hypocritical theme next year by opting for one that is more in keeping with the true purpose of the festival.

My second criticism pertains to the range of musical selection. I should really first state that I did genuinely adore Burning Man last year. My feelings are not borne out of some entrenched bitter attitude towards the event. However, I realize that there are these two major gripes I have with how Burning Man is practiced. Musically, the variety is sickeningly finite. Psych trance and other modifications of banal house are the norm. Live music and real dance music are rare at the Burn. I won't spend any more words on negative aspects of Burning Man, since I do really see this culture as worthy and ultimately profound in many ways. But, these two major criticisms stand.

This private security company is a disgrace. I learnt of the outfit's brutish disdain for civil behavior during a stint in New Orleans with the American Red Cross post-Katrina. A Blackwater security agent humiliated one mentally disabled fellow who had unknowingly ignored some of the site policies. As if to informally present his case for why he should be doing real security work in Mesopotamia rather than in the Garden District of Nawlins, the irate Blackwater chump, who had no jurisdiction over clients at our site, proceeded to threaten immense injury upon this sorry fellow. Due to a series of auspicious moves, the testy interaction eventually cooled, and the Blackwater thug ultimately proved his worth as a mercenary and his failure as a human being.

Recent events in Iraq show Blackwater to be calloused beyond sanity. Their foot soldiers will kill without skipping a beat and without proper legal recourse. While I have no problem, in theory, of private security firms that are accountable ultimately to the public, the current situation in Iraq renders these firms virtually entirely unaccountable, reckless, and shortsighted. This despicable expression of American military ambition and unilateralism is the way of the future. Privatization of war so that it can be better controlled by the oligarchs of the world is an increasingly unstoppable phenom. These firms will continue to operate beyond the pale of international law and even of responsible warmongering, whatever that oxymoron would truly encompass.

Sicko Transformed
Michael Moore twists reality. He is no documentary film maker, but he well deserves the moniker of propagandist. In an effort to impartially judge the merit of his cinematic creation, I will carefully lay out the reasoning behind my conclusion. His film Sicko is a thorough indictment of the American health care system. As such, it scathingly critiques the most heinous aspects of the American system, while lauding the best possible aspects of 4 other health care systems: Canadian, English, French, and Cuban. By pointing out the worst failures of our health care establishment, he undoubtedly lays blame on many of the rightly usual suspects. I fundamentally agree with his overall message. However, I object to the notion that he produces documentaries that are at all even-handed. Moore is utter propagandist in the best sense of the term.

We all know that the American system has resulted in the denial of coverage to up to a sixth of US citizens. This is disgraceful. I cannot agree more with Moore on this basic premise, that universal coverage is the best way to ensure a healthy citizenry. Yet, Moore would more successfully win over his audience if he were more earnest in his assessments. Let's be frank - Moore ignores all of the truly novel innovations of health care in America. I am no apologist for the system as it currently exists, but in any objective rendering of the health care delivery network would include the many unique and cutting-edge technologies, surgeries, and drugs that have been churned out in the US. That being said, the system needs reform. This reform needs to be drastic. I just disagree with Moore's framing of the debate. Obviously, he's not really pretending to tell the whole story, but it just becomes cinema of the absurd when he launches a postmodernist crusade into the hospitals and fire departments of Havana - in a bizarro comparison between policies that have neglected to cover the casualties of Americans who are still reeling from the September 11th attacks and the stellar Cuban health care system. Moore's hyperbolic assault technique would be comical were it not for the terrible nature of what actually transpired with his subjects.

Either way, Moore paints the rosiest possible picture of the foreign societies and the most ominous possible picture of the American. This lopsided coverage deserves a bit more balance. The ridiculously extreme nature of the exaggeration makes the entire effort a bit less appealing.

This brings me to my current predicament. India is perfect. It is also a disaster. To label in such a reductionist manner at either extreme is hyperbole. Michael Moore might as well have included the benefits of the Indian health care system in his film for the sake of even more extreme comparison. And he most certainly would have fully ignored any of its failings, since his film serves only to underscore the pathetic attributes of the American system.

Middle East to South Asia

I've now switched from Semitic culture to Indo-Aryan-Dravidian civilization. All my obsessions with UN OCHA maps & separation fence geography will be the basis for later research on many significant topics (including Arabic language, geopolitical conflict, and hegemonic religion). But, this will have to wait. Moreover, my more leisurely interest in Jewish neo-paganism and the multihued collage of Northwest Semitic godheads did not yet bear ripe fruit. At some point in the future I intend to dig this subject up once again.

For now, I am stationed willingly, wildly and wholeheartedly in the Island City of Bombay. My activities here will surely generate an infinitude of bloglines topics. Chala!
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