The Balkanized World of the Not White Not Man

Last week, Mark Fisher wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine about WBAI Radio host, Bob Fass, and his legendary show, Radio Unnameable. The piece, called “Voice of the Cabal,” showcased the worst of the New Yorker – the facile, elitist gloss, and the unthinking, casual racism.

The premise of the piece is that Bob Fass, who has been the host of the on-again, off-again Radio Unnameable since the 1960s, has been slighted by the new regime at the station. Radio Unnameable came on the air in 1962, broadcasting on the overnights 5 days a week with an eclectic freeform mix of talk, sound clips, music, callers, and ramblings. As the article notes, Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan were regulars on Fass’s show for years, and Fass attracted a loyal following of listeners and callers, known as the cabal (hence the article’s title).

Now Fass is on one night a week. And Fisher insinuates, although doesn’t quite have the balls to come out and say, is that the “balkanized schedule” of shows now on the station has forced him out. Fisher cites, as proof of this balkanization, the names of several shows on WBAI: First Voices Indigenous Radio, Out-FM, Joy of Resistance (“multi-cultural feminist radio), Beyond the Pale (“progressive Jewish politics”), The Largest Minority (“issues affecting people with disabilities”), Afrikalidoscope, and Asia Pacific Forum. He then says “Fass’s show is one of the few on the station seeking a broad audience.”

Fisher’s snarky parentheticals suggest that he didn’t take the time to listen to any of the programs he names, but chose to read their titles and one sentence descriptions and decide that those programs are narrowly targeted, not seeking a broad audience. Had he taken the time to listen, Fisher would have learned that those shows seek to educate people inside and outside of the communities that produce the shows (women, First Nations people, or people with disabilities, for example) about the issues in those communities. That’s not narrow targeting, it’s education. Also, the Asia-Pacifica region is certainly not small, nor is the entire continent of Africa. And unfortunately we still need to remind people like Fisher that women are not a narrowly focused balkanized audience, even if a feminist radio show were only trying to address that half of the population.

Therein lies the racism of the article. Fisher assumes that a show by a white man tied to the Greenwich Village community was a show with a broad appeal, while the shows he names are “factionalized” and esoteric. It’s as if whiteness, white maleness, is the blank slate on which all other identities can be grafted. Fass with, without a doubt, an innovator and a pioneer. Much of the rambling talk radio now on all the airwaves can be traced back to Fass (but don’t blame him, it’s really not his fault). But not everyone wants to listen to “experiments with noise and silence,” “an improvised melange of live music, speeches, and random phone calls.”

Fisher writes that “much of the station’s white, liberal audience has drifted away,” while “managers and program hosts went at one another with lawsuits, personnel purges, and fights over race, ideology, and how to appeal to the city’s growing Black, Latino, and Asian populations.”

It’s true that there have been years of infighting at WBAI, and the Pacifica Network overall. I should know, I’ve been an unpaid producer at the station since 2000, six years that sometimes elicit a laugh from the people who’ve been in those trenches since the sixties. And it’s great to see the station featured so prominently in a magazine that I love despite myself. It’s certainly never been known for its down to earth sensibility. I love it because the New Yorker regularly features some of the country’s best narrative non fiction from people like Katherine Boo, the grim environmental reporting of Elizabeth Kolbert, and yes, the investigative work of the irascible Sy Hersh.

This piece by Fisher, however, will not be entering my personal pantheon. To conflate WBAI’s broadening of its content and the diversity of its producers with its downturn from its 60s heyday is outrageous. WBAI isn’t the only place that’s changed since the 1960s. The politics of the country have changed just a little too. Many devotees of Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan now listen to NPR, where, incidentally, Bob Dylan’s recent album has featured prominently in recent fund drives. And a lot of them probably don’t want to listen to freeform sound collages.

Meanwhile, the media hasn’t changed enough. Although you might not know it from most of the mainstream media, there are thousands of serious, hardworking, creative and dedicated journalists and broadcasters of color out there. In 1962, there were few on them on WBAI. 44 years later, there are many. WBAI should be commended for doing what almost no other broadcast outlets does: truly representing the city whose airwaves it uses, at least demographically. Radio newsrooms are just 6% people of color nationwide. There’s a story.

Radio is an amazing, creative and stimulating thing. It’s one of the greatest joys in my life, to listen to and to create. I am truly appreciative of people like Bob Fass who might have made radio that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but who made radio that was weird and different and and not like anything else. And I’m appreciative of all the people past and present working their asses off for no pay to keep community media outlets like WBAI alive and kicking. Just think of all the untapped ideas out there, all the freeform crazy creative innovations that the women and people of color out there will bring to the airwaves when we finally bust those doors down.

When I was out working on a story today, the woman I was interviewing was asking what WBAI is like now, and said she listens to NPR these days. And she mentioned Radio Unnameable, and how it was just IT. I hope that someone’s reminiscing about Wakeup Call 40 years from now. I hope that I can contribute to something that’s as incredibly indelible as Radio Unnameable. But I hope that person is still listening to WBAI, and I hope some young person is in master control, making a kind of radio that never, ever crossed my mind.

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Everything is Pretty on TV.

The other night, every single channel had a dead woman on it. The local TV stations were showing their 10 o’clock news, and they were all covering a story about a woman who had been kidnapped, or raped, or murdered. The other stations were showing the CSI sort of shows, or Law and Order, or one of those other ones where the death is pretty and solved. Even PBS was showing a special about Judy Garland and how she was mistreated by the industry.

Many if not most of the women I know are survivors of some sort of sexual abuse – a date rape, an abusive relationship, even raped by strangers, which is by far the most unusual of those horrible circumstances. And while I wouldn’t presume to speak for all of us, I, for one, am so sick of looking at broken, beaten, raped and bleeding dead women on TV. As a recent episode of Studio 60 said, “half the shows in prime time start with two strippers getting strangled after a lap dance.”

I’m starting to think its some sort of conditioning program. I was reading an article in Rolling Stone recently, called The Killing Factory, about how the Army has worked very hard to train soldiers to kill. This training has also been covered in the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 (in a linkable but less snarky article). Both explore a problem faced by the military: people are naturally resistant to killing other human beings, which has come in handy evolutionarily. So the army has worked very, very hard to condition that natural resistance out of people. The main way they do that is to make the people they’re killing less real, less human – shooting at person-shaped blobs rather than pictures of people. And the campaign worked well. In WW2, just 15-20% of soldiers fired their weapons. That “firing rate” went up to “55 percent in the Korean conflict and 95 percent in Vietnam.”

I think that’s what TV is doing. It’s making it seem okay for women to be dying. It’s making it seem okay for women to be raped or beaten. Normal. And when aberrant behavior seems normal, that bad behavior can increase. That’s what a study by Arizona State University Professor Robert Cialdini found. He did his research in Arizona’s Petrified National Forest, where people were taking the petrified wood and crystals from along the paths. The forest service put up a sign saying “Because so many people are stealing petrified wood and crystals from the forest floor, the integrity of the forest is being threatened.” Which made the stealing sound popular, even common and normal.

Cialdini did a test – he left that sign on one path, put no sign on another, and put a sign that talked about the cost to the environment on the third. Then he seeded the sides of the paths with marked bits of wood. Here’s what he found: on the path with the sign that made the stealing seem normal, people took three times as much wood as they did on the path with no sign at all. As Cialdini writes in science-speak, the problem is that “within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.” In other words, all the shows that have tons of people killing and raping women give the idea that that is normal behavior, even though they do communicate that its bad behavior. Within the statement “Many people are killing and raping women, and its bad” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message, “Many people are killing and raping women.”

The absurd omnipresence of violence against women on TV also serves the useful purpose of reminding women to be afraid. From watching TV, you’d think that women being raped and killed by strangers lurking in shadows is happening every single day, all the time. And it does. But what’s by far more common in real life is sexual violence perpetrated by women’s dates, boyfriends, or husbands. A study recently published in the British journal The Lancet studied partner violence. The authors spoke with almost 25,000 women at 15 sites in 10 countries, and found that (as the NYT reports) “rates of partner violence ranged from a low of 15 percent in Yokohama, Japan, to a high of 71 percent in rural Ethiopia.” So the *lowest* number of women who have experienced violence from a partner was 15%.

You do see shows where women are killed by their dates or partners. You even sometimes see shows where women are raped by a date, or beaten by their partner, and those men are hunted down by the police. That’s the big fiction of these cop shows – that police departments invest all their forensic and human resources to prosecute violence against women.

In actuality, police response to violence against women can be, and often is, grossly inadequate. A recent study by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department concluded that there was a “clear and pervasive pattern” of departures from departmental policy when dealing with domestic violence cases. In only one-third of the domestic violence calls to the DCPD did an officer take photographs or ask about prior abuse. Only 17% of the victims were asked about a restraining order, and 83% were provided no printed information with contact information or resources.

And police themselves are often abusers – according to the National Center for Women and Policing, an estimated 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence. That doesn’t bode well for women trying to get the police to take assaults seriously.

Many women who suffer domestic or sexual violence don’t involve the police. National estimates of the proportion of rapes that are reported range from 16 to about 30 percent. So in a city like New York, where there were 3,636 reported rapes in 2005, that could mean that more than 22,000 women were actually raped. In terms of domestic violence, 600,000 reports of assault by intimates are officially reported to federal officials each year. But the most conservative estimates suggest two to four million women are battered annually in the US. That’s a lot of women who aren’t getting the CSI treatment.

In a moment when YouTube can get slammed for posting lockpicking videos because they contribute to delinquency, why can’t we control what gets broadcast on TV? I’m not advocating censorship, but as I’ve talked about before, local communities should have way more say in what they get via the public airwaves. I’d rather hear the word fuck than see a dismembered body of a woman every time I turn the TV on. Wouldn’t you?

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It’s a Purple Rain

The elections Tuesday really give the lie to the whole Red State Blue State “divide”. What the results show is that people voted one way in 2002, maybe a similar way in 2004, and now in 2006, as the economy and the war changes (and as September 11, 2001 fades a bit) people voted a different way.

It’s true, in 2004, the nation was really very red.

And two years later, the blue has spread quite a bit.

Obviously, there are regional trends in voting, and New England will probably be backing the Kennedy dynasty for quite some time, while Texas sticks with the Bush clan. But this is nothing new – the color of each Congressional District has been changing election to election for more than 40 years, as this map shows. We’ve always been purple.

In the change from 04 to 06, it’s not that tons of liberals from Berkeley and Boston moved to Ohio, Montana, or the Dakotas. It’s that people actually do seem to vote based on (gasp) ideas and positions rather than party. That is, insofar as they can actually figure out what anyone’s position is from their superficial, substance-less ads.

And, I have to say, I think these election results are also attributable to the fact that many people who were once Republicans have become Democrats not because their politics changed but that the whole political spectrum moved right while they were standing still. As extreme conservatives pulled the Republicans ever further right, many centrist Republicans found the party had left them behind.

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Hustling Backwards

Because I spend a lot of my evenings working at home and reading up on the day’s news, I watch a fair amount of TV. Or rather, I hear a lot of TV in the background of my room, staying half tuned in to the sitcoms and news shows. The other night, I was half-watching a special on Hurricane Katrina, and while it was nothing I didn’t know already, it hit me hard.

Working in the news media, I’ve been pretty acutely aware that the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was approaching. Like every other media outlet, my show has been planning its coverage for the big day, although I do think we haven’t covered it the way others have. We have reports from around the world, comparing the earthquake in Gujarat to the flooding of New Orleans. We have the voices of evacuees displaced by the storm mixed with stories of street vendors displaced by the World Trade Center bombings. I think these illustrate the idea that Katrina and its mismanaged aftermath, to borrow a phrase, was an extreme example of the current disaster we’ve been in for decades – the disaster of racism, classism, and environmental mismanagement.

But as the TV flickered in the background, I was pulled away from work to the screen by the images that hit me so hard a year ago. The desperation. The mothers begging for water to give their thirsty babies. The old people sleeping on the baggage carousel at Louis Armstrong airport. The thousands sleeping pell-mell on the floor at the Superdome, the clogged toilets and mountains of garbage and sheet-covered bodies outside what was supposed to be a safe haven.

And while I’ve been planning our reporting on the hurricane, I had managed to forget the feelings I had watching those images a year ago. The shame, anger, despair, and devastation – those had faded.

And that’s an outrage. I suppose we can’t live in a constant state of shame, despair, and fury. But a year on since the Hurricane, the “national conversation” about race and class that we were supposed to have? I’m still waiting, and if Katrina wasn’t going to spark it, I don’t want to be around for whatever disaster will finally make America face up.

The NBC special had Brian Williams saying “When you walk by a body lying face fown on the street outside the Superdome, you know that something has come unravelled.” Oh, that’s when you know? You didn’t have a hint when all the faces drawn and desperate at the Superdome were black. You didn’t get a clue when the schools were failing, when the unemployment rates are through the roof, when working people can barely make enough to survive.

The NBC special aired the 28th, the day before the storm hit. On the actually Katrina anniversary, I was really struck by the near-total lack of coverage on the major TV networks. That day being a Tuesday and thus a work-night, I tuned into PBS, which was showing a new documentary not on Katrina, but much more topically, on the current disaster. It’s called Waging A Living, and its about how impossible it is for working people to live in America. And it profiles three women and one man, living not on the brink of poverty but well underwater, despite their superhuman efforts to survive.

It particularly killed me that these were women, all with children, all so proud and strong and fierce, and so damn familiar. They are the women who follow the rules, love their kids, work ungodly hard, even make time for school. And all they get for it is massive credit card debt, high blood pressure, and deep, deep grief at not being able to hold up the sky.

One woman is raising five kids; she works for child services, and she herself was sexually and physically abused as a kid. When, after four years at $8.25 an hour, she gets a raise to $11, she loses food stamps and Medicaid benefits. One child is sick; she can’t afford his $191 prescriptions (for 2 drugs) with her new salary. Her rental is subsidy is cut, raising the rent by $149 – more than the total amount of the raise. As she says, the harder she works, the harder it gets. Hustling backwards.

Another is a waitress, going through a divorce. She’s losing her home, her car, and her kids are losing it too from the stress and the crisis. You see the direct line between the financial precarity and the family breakdown. Family values is economic justice, plain and simple.

I know this isn’t the most radical position, but I do actually believe in the promise of America. For all its terrible flaws, for its slave-holding origins, America was founded – even if just in name only – on the whimsical notion that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right. Brian Williams didn’t specify just what had come unravelled when he saw the body in the street, but it’s something very fundamental – it’s America’s own idea of itself. For the people dying in the streets, on their roofs and in their attics, the pursuit of happiness was irrelevant; it was the pursuit of life itself, and the American government failed them. But as Waging a Living illustrates so intensely, that failure did not by any stretch of the imagination start late last August.

Much has been made of the media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath. And I could join the chorus and go on forever about the media’s misrepresentations and obfuscations of who is responsible for the abuse of New Orleans’ residents. But that’s a straw man. It’s like saying Survivor is bad because it split people by race. No. Survivor is bad because its a ridiculous waste of our public airwaves that too rarely make time (or funding) for riveting human relevant stories like the one on PBS tonight.

The women in this movie are so goddam cheerful and strong, and there are millions of them all over the place, and the closest we’ve come to showing them on TV in the last 15 years is Roseanne and then the Katrina coverage. I used to work on economic policy issues, and sometimes I wonder whether I should have stayed there, because working in the media feels far from the real world sometimes. But then I see TV programs like this, and I remember why the fights for a media justice matter the hell out of the damn thing. It’s because with a just media, we would not be able to hide from the current disaster.

One woman in this movie says that the best part was when she got evicted, and then social services came through for her, her adult daughter with cancer, her four grandkids, and her own young child. The best part, she said, was that someone finally heard that I needed help. Just to be clear, she is saying that the best part was when her whole family lost their family home. Yeah.

For thousands in New Orleans, no one heard the requests for help – during the storm, before, or since. And I say requests on purpose. It’s not a plea, it’s not a desperate wail. These requests for help, from the people in New Orleans and the working poor all over the country – they’re a demand of people who believe in themselves, a battle cry of people fighting hard to live.

The waitress mom in Waging a Living encapsulated in four words the way I feel about life in America right now. “I’m independent. I’m not free,” she says. I certainly consider myself to be strong and independent. But with our rights to communicate, control our bodies, live in a half-affordable home, and earn enough to feed our families all under attack, this doesn’t look like freedom. It’s more like we’re all hustling backwards.

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This age, or this age?

For a while recently, I was feeling irritable and kind of down. And being generally a cheerful person who likes herself as much as people do, if not more, it took me a while to realize what the problem was. It took some working out, but here is it: I was feeling lonely.
Me being me, I started to tell all my friends: hey, guess what I figured out? I’m lonely! And most of them said yeah, me too. I think I said that to maybe one person that didn’t have that lonely feeling too.

So I thought well, if we’re all bloody lonely, why aren’t we all spending more time together? Little things like cooking meals together and sitting around working together, besides big things like picnics and nights out and whatnot. Part of the issue here in New York City seems to be gentrification and the crazy cost of living – that everyone is so spread out, and hustling so hard to make outrageous rents that no one can afford the hour it takes to go across town for a cup of tea.

My mum said it’s this age. I think she meant the number of years ago that I was born, that people in their late 20s and early 30s are just kind of lonely. But I wonder if it’s this age, as in this era, this moment in time. This age of death and destruction, civil wars and the world is controlled by lunatics and despair, just despair. I was listening the other day to a story on the radio about an evangelical preacher who stopped believing in hell after he had a vision from god where god told him hell is here on earth. What else does hell look like besides (in his example) Rwanda, or (in mine) Qana? While that radio piece was actually pretty uplifting (and amazing), it’s a valid question. Plus, it’s hot as hell here in NYC.

Is that why we feel lonely – because we’re all feeling isolated in our grief and hopelessness? That’s a pretty grim vision, and not really my experience of life. I do work that I love, and try to be a good person who works damn hard for a better world. I don’t feel beaten yet. But I also don’t think that this many people who love each other and the world can feel lonely without it being related to the chaos in the headlines (and out of it).

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Media Fines Should Fund Media Justice

You know those anti-tobacco ads? The ones that are actually smart and funny and punchy? Those are collectively known as the Truth Campaign. They've been shown to be very, very effective – they're credited with up to 20% of the recent drop in teen smoking. And they're paid for by the tobacco industry.

Why would they do that? Because they had to, of course. As you may recall, in the late 90s, states Attorneys General filed a big class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Part of the settlement from those suits went to create the American Legacy Foundation, which basically works to stop smoking through consumer education, ad campaigns, grant-making, etc.

The whole Star/Power 105 has put the idea of FCC fines back in the spotlight, last up for discussion during the wardrobe malfunction debacle. Where do those fines go, you ask? Good question. They go straight into the Federal Treasury, to pay for things like war and the deficit (for a full breakdown of Federal spending, check out the good folks at the National Priorities Project).
I say the fines on companies like ClearChannel or ABC should go into a fund to support media literacy and media justice efforts.  The money could fund some existing groups like the Youth Media Council and Radio Rootz and Third World Majority, or it could start something new and amazing. 

New, amazing, and meaningfully independent, which I grant is not bloody likely under this administration.  But I think there's something to this idea.  And hey, if the Dems take at least one house, there's a slim chance of something good happening in DC.  I'm certainly not arguing in favor of FCC fines for ridiculous things like the Janet Jackson nipple, or bachelor party scenes in reality TV shows.  But for things like the recent Star comments on ClearChannel's Power 105 in New York, hell yes.  And those fines should pay to take ClearChannel down.

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Ravioli with Dandelion Greens and Goat Cheese

I like to eat, and I like to cook even more. Most of my friends only like to eat and have no idea how to cook. It's not hard. So I'm going to start posting some of my favorite recipes up on here, in the hopes that some of you will take action.

Raviolis with Dandelion Greens and Goat Cheese

Ingredients

– frozen raviolis (my personal favorite are the Rising Moon organic Butternut Squash raviolis with hazelnut, so good)

– dandelion greens (one bunch)
– onion (one, small)

– tomatoes (two medium plum is my preference)

– goat cheese

– olive oil

1) Put water on the boil for the pasta

2) Chop up the onion really small, maybe even half the onion, unless you really like it. Put some olive oil in a medium sized pan over medium heat (not too hot!), then when the oil is hot, toss in the onion. Cook that shit until the onion is translucent.

3) Chop the tomatoes up into small chunks. Toss them in with the onion, still on medium heat.

4) Rinse the dandelion greens, then chop them up small too. Don't cook the stems at the bottom, cause those are tough. Just chop the green bits. Then stick them in the pan with the tomato and onion.

5) Cook that for a couple minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon or something. Then add a bit of water, enough to swish the greens around in the bottom of the pan but not enough to submerge them. We're trying to steam them. Then stick a lid on the pan, to cook the greens down. Throw some salt in there too.

6) The water is now boiling. Throw the ravioli in there, *not* into rapidly boiling water! Let the water boil and then turn it down a little, cause the rapid boil will make the raviolis burst out their insides. Follow the cooking instructions on the package, but it'll be about 10 minutes or so til they're done. When they're done, they'll float to the top of the water (assuming they're not stuck to the bottom of the pan).

7) Drain the pasta, and check on your greens. The greens should have cooked down and be a very nice bright green color. Turn the heat off on that, and throw the drained raviolis in there with the greens and tomatoes.

8) Add some goat cheese. Just crumble it on top and stir it all around. The greens and pasta should get kind of creamy. I like it with still some unmelted chunks of creamy goat cheese.

Yum!

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