En fin, je ne suis pas Charlie, mais oui, je suis Charlie!

NYC est avec Paris ce soir et tellement triste #jesuischarlie #charliehebdo

Impromptu homage to Charlie Hebdo, Union Square, 1/7/2015

Settle in, friends, because this post is a long one and I can’t promise it is perfectly edited or articulated, but given the events of the past week, as a self-proclaimed Francophile and someone with deep emotional, friend and family ties to that country, as well as a dedicated scholar of post-colonial studies and staunch believer in social justice, I felt that I had to say something about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

When I heard the news last Tuesday morning the first thing I said was, “Oh shit.” I went into work late, staying home to listen to BBC and text my sister and friends in Paris, knowing some of them lived and work close by to the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I texted friends working as journalists, wanting to give them the biggest hug for doing what they do.

And then one of those days that I wish I never had to experience, but have become too common over the past few years. Glued to the media. Could not turn away from social media. Obsessive hitting of the refresh button. Needing to look away, but unable to look away. And then another day like that. And another. All week I’ve been reading a lot in French and in English this week, keeping windows from Liberation and Le Monde open on my browser.

As events unfolded again I felt a feeling that has become all too familiar. A feeling that this is surreal. A feeling that this cannot possibly be happening. A feeling that this is a political turning point and we don’t know where the chips will fall next. Overall, I was heartbroken.

Le crayon qui pleure par Mademoiselle Stef

My sister has lived and worked in Paris since the late 1980s and I remember when I talked to her shortly after September 11th, 2001. I had just arrived in New York City weeks before, and she told me brusquely, “Of course it was Al Qaeda, that was the first thing I thought of. Of course it was Bid Laden.” In my 20 year old naivte then, I didn’t even know who that was, or that such a thing might be even imaginable, much less possible. Now we are living in world where such radical acts of extremism are possible, and have been possible for quite some time. It is also a world where slavery was possible. Where colonialism was possible. Where massacre in the name of religion is possible. Where exploitation of all kinds in the name of faith, capitalism, and consolidation of power have been and are possible.

In all my years visiting and studying in France I never picked up Charlie Hebdo. I saw it as a very old school, very French magazine, comfortable at thumbing its nose at everyone. It was a publication that I, who believes in being sensitive to all viewpoints and backgrounds, felt was one note and too abrasive for my personal tastes. However, I thought that it was indicative of a larger attitude in French culture. This is a position that privileges satire, flouting of authority, and snubbing ones nose at what is considered socially acceptable and polite.

Yes, it is a pompous position that comes from a former colonial power that still struggles to acknowledge the impact that colonial legacy has on its current policies (the riots in working class suburbs and housing projects in 2005 being a very clear example). Yes, it is a position of privilege that often does not acknowledge the (often straight, white, male and well educated) position of the author, and yes, I personally found some they published offensive or at least in “bad taste,” but that was part of the point. This piece in the New York Times explains well the satirical, comic tradition that Charlie Hebdo comes out of and summed up a lot of my feelings about the place of political humor to boot. Media Studies professor Catherine Lu wrote this piece about the specific intellectual history that Charlie Hebdo comes out of and urges intellectuals to resist making overly easy and prudish conclusions about racism or history.

Overall, these cartoons were just part of a range of a media landscape that seemed to me part of a democratic debate and one very particular viewpoint – the kind that likes to be offensive for the sake of it and you know that, but occasionally they have something very prescient to say.

Place de la Republique by Aurelia Bonfait

Place de la Republique by Aurelia Bonfait

This comes at a moment of rising Islamophobia in Europe (and the US), which is also another indication of France (and Europe’s) unexamined colonial legacy. I cringed as I watched American news media interview old French ladies in furs in classic, posh looking cafes griping about how they felt like “those people” did not understand the nature of “being French.”

I, like all of my French friends who I have talked to, fear the political backlash from these events. That like the United States after 9/11 there will be a turn towards the conservative, the patriotic, the unquestioning idea of what constitutes “France,” “Frenchness,” and “European.” And, yet, look at what else happened in France on Sunday the 11th. The massive united rallies across the country, with supposedly the one in Paris drawing over 3 million people, seemed free from an overt, jingoistic overtone. They were respectful, they were reflective.

I could hardly imagine the same thing happening in the US, and certainly the only post-9/11 demonstrations I attended were massive anti-war rallies, as I was convinced (and remained convinced) that a violent retaliation to a violent event will only lead to more violence. There were not masses of people chanting the French equivalent of “USA! USA!” but rather a show of respect and solidarity for the victims and a clamoring for the right for freedom of expression as the basis for a democratic society. And the far right Front National actively discouraged from participating.

I think back (murkily, it’s been a long time) to the broader American response post-9/11 and I remember as a newly minted New Yorker the crises of “We are all NYC!” rankled me. “Are you breathing the air full of corpses and asbestos?” I remember asking rhetorically, “Then you are not a New Yorker.” For my Parisian friends, how do you feel about the “Nous sommes tous Charlie” sentiment? Similar? Different?

Place de la Republique 1/11/2015 by Aurelia Bonfair

Place de la Republique 1/11/2015 by Aurelia Bonfait

My former neighbor and comic artist Matt Madden, who has been living in France for the past few years, wrote this touching piece about why yes, “I am Charlie,” despite his initial hesitation. I think the piece that summed up my feelings most of all was this one my friend Michel shared, the title which translates to “I am not Charlie, and believe me, I am as devastated as you.” It looks at the institutional and systematic conditions that have created homegrown extremists in France – the same conditions of political disenfranchisement, grinding poverty and lack of real opportunity that create extremists and criminals the world over.

Let us not forget that this is also happening at a time in the United States where unarmed Black men are being killed by overzealous law enforcement and we are experiencing a moment of intense questioning what it means to be in a society that promotes “justice” as a value the world over and yet denies that to our own citizens here at home. The systems that shape extremism in Europe are similar to the ones who shape extremism, hate, fear and violence close to home as well.

Photo by Amelie Nello, Place de Bastille 1/11/2015

Photo by Amelie “Morning by Foley,” Place de Bastille 1/11/2015

My friends Michel and Sabine shared this moving piece from a French school teacher who teaches at a middle school in Seine Saint Denis, a working class suburb northeast of Paris that was at the epicenter of anti-police and anti-government riots in 2005 (not far from where where then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy famously declared that he would to “nettoyer la cite au karcher”[clean up the housing project with a high powered pressure washer] and called working class youth “racaille” or scum). The author talks about how their students, the majority of them Muslim, are critical, smart, nuanced and grateful to talk about the situation, and how in all of this we need to resist simple ideas, solutions and generalizations. It reinforces my feeling that the only way forward is through critical dialogue, thought and critique.

And that is what is at the crux of all of this. The way forward, the way to heal, is not through more dogmatism about what should or should not be allowed to be printed, or who is or is not a certain nationality, but towards building societies that are actually open to debate, disagreement, and mutual respect. That is not a fast moving solution, but a long game. It is not convenient for those who see answers that lie in capitalism, religion or any particular state. I believe it will only come about by looking at the historical roots of the contemporary conflicts that we are facing around the world and doing our best to unravel them. Dialogue and debate are uncomfortable. They are uncertain. When we engage sincerely we sometimes look like idiots. We have to admit where we are wrong and also be strong enough to stand up for our values and what we believe. At the end of it all, I believe this is what the illustrators and journalists working for Charlie Hebdo did, whether or not it’s the way I personally engage in the debate.

As Nick Keppler, a journalist friend, wrote on Facbeook, “I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life and a hopeless irreverent smart-ass for much longer. No one should die for either.”

Nous sommes tous Charlie.

Paris et NYC, avec toute ma cœur je vous aime...

The empire state glows bleu, blanc, rouge in tribute to France 1/11/2015


Beyond the Aesthetics of Progress

Reflecting on the events in and in response to Ferguson, Missouri I wrote this on Facebook, “So if you want to know how I really feel: I was talking tonight about how despite my radicalism I had this naive idea that culture would “progress” and politics would have to follow. But now I feel like we’ve only “progressed” aesthetically, sort of, and really what we are left with is a legacy (and current practice) of slavery, colonialism and extreme racism (as well as sexism and many other ugly things). But because of those aesthetics of progress those who call out injustice are often shut down and made to feel crazy and like they are “subjective.”


With so many trolls and often unproductive exchanges I’m reluctant to talk about politics online, but I thought more about this idea of the “aesthetics of progress” and wanted to write a little more about that. In the past ten years I feel lucky to see some kind of “progress” on a political front in the United States – gay marriage is legal in the majority of states, Barak Obama is President,  Sheryl Sanberg and Beyonce feminism is part of the norm, we see big pop culture movies with strong female heroines… and these things are powerful and some of them have a profound impact on peoples’ lives, but at the same time there’s been so many disturbing things happening that it can make all of this supposed “progress” look a bit wan.

A friend who commented on my Facebook page commented, “I agree that we mask our shit much better than we used to, but I also think that we are digging at deeper and deeper psychological levels of hatred. 300 years ago the murder of an unarmed black teen in would have barely caused an eyelash to bat, now it’s world news.” And while I completely agree, I have to ask, at what price this perspective and slow progress?

In our progressive society we see brute racism such in the case of the shooting of Michael Brown, the erosion of a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will have children (or even have access to health care and birth control), violent backlash to feminist critiques of tech and gamer culture (or event the suggestion of the important of diversity) that we’ve seen in gamer gate, the erosion of job security and the middle class at the benefit of the super wealthy… and the those are just the examples I could think about off the top of my head.

I know that addressing injustice is uneven, but this is more about political stagnation and back tracking on political gains, a culture that is hostile to all those who are not white, rich and male under the guise of diversity and empowerment, United Colors of Benetton style. I feel we are living out the specific legacy of George W. Bush’s policies and culture, as well as the influence of groups like the Tea Party – conservatism, restriction on women’s right and belief in trickle down economics – combined with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to ignore connections between issues and events.

There’s nothing new to this, but I’m realizing that what I want is not just aesthetics of progress, but an end to what bell hooks called in her more politically pointed earlier writing the “white, supremacist, capitalist, [heteronormative] patriarchy.” I realize I sound like the late 1990s cultural studies student that I am, but there’s real truth and power in remembering that oppressions act together. It may sound strange to bring up Ferguson, MO and “Gamergate” in one short post, the point is that what we are witnessing is a violent crack down on “difference” and a society that is becoming more and more closed and hostile, while spewing rhetoric of progress and greater equality.

I find myself returning to James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, not necessarily for answers and hope, because he wrote of the same cultural forces and histories 60 years ago, but for a reminder to keep analyzing, keep going deeper into the histories and prejudices that drive these events, and to keep fighting and taking care of ourselves and nurturing the vision for a society we truly want to see. And so I’ll leave you with a (long) quote from Baldwin:

“The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the one that matters; all precious civilizations are simply “contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilizations guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelming undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that the approached the pathological.”

And finally, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son


To Occupied to Occupy

One afternoon the other week my office was dismissed early from work due to unfounded fears that the Occupy Wallstreet movement was planning to shut down the NYC subway system. Now for my French readers the shutting down of a part of the city’s transit system due to a strike or a protest is a regular occurrence that provokes some grumbling, some shrugs, and, usually, begrudging support. In New York, however, it seemed to be provoke a lot of fear and confusion.  As one of my Facebook friends smartly commented, “Don’t the protesters know that the 1% does not take the subway? They take taxis, sheesh” (or have private cars).

This got me to thinking about my (largely unexpressed) thoughts on the Occupy movement. First and foremost, this fall I’m far too occupied to participate, unfortunately. In this terrible economy I made the decision to go back to university for my master’s degree and continue to work full time. When I began in the fall of 2009 I had the vain hope that by the time I finished the economy would be improved and I would be able to find a leadership position in an arts organization that pays a living wage. Still waiting on that one. However, this leaves me very little time for anything that is not work, school or a pressing concern related to my life or one of the many projects I have going.

But more seriously and to the point: what do I think of the Occupy movement? And isn’t contesting the policies that large corporations, banks, lobbyists and the US government supported that got us into this economic mess more important than my selfish concerns? In short, yes, they are, but…

Overall, I support the Occupy Wallstreet movement wholeheartedly. I think that their biggest victory has been to move forward and reframe the political and media discourse in the United States and world-wide. The movement has brought critique of the United States’ unequal, inefficient and unethical economic, labor and education policies to a mainstream audience. It has brought a more progressive tone to debates around the role of government in the economy and private life, which is a real relief after the rise of the Tea Party movement last year.

For me personally it is very heartening to see this style of protest come back in the United States after it the anti-globalization and anti-war movements (both of which I participated in) were squashed by Bush and the general post-9/11 political climate.  It’s also disgusting (and sadly unsurprising) to see how power continues to react when threatened, whether those are police on a California college campus or on the streets of New York.

However, as a student (soon to be graduate!) of public policy, the Occupy Wallstreet movement has not articulated any concrete list of policy goals. This is a strength, because it allows the movement to appeal to a broad range of people. After all, if you are claiming to represent the 99 percent (or even the 95% or the 90%) that is a huge range of people and opinions. However, this is also a weakness because it prevents the movement from gaining political support in a way that laws can be enacted and policies can be changed.

The Occupy movement has also gained much attention because it is led and fueled by young people. It has captured the imagination of highly educated people who have found no gainful employment due to the economy and have every right to be frustrated. Of course, organized labor, activists of all stripes, veterans and a diverse crowd has also joined in the movement. Many people involved in their early twenties are coming of age politically through their participation. I remember the feeling of being 19 to 22 and protesting, feeling like it could radically shift the way the world was organized. I do not write this condescendingly when I saw that protest is a right of passage and an inalienable right. However, many “occupiers” did not experience the way the Bush administration squashed opposition to the war in Iraq or debate around any number of his policies. I feel in many ways the institutional memory between US protest movements is short (or nonexistent) and the Occupy protestors are learning lessons that those protesting for years, between the 1950s and the 2000s, had to learn again and again.

I think what I feel is important to note is that in the United States we live in an economic and governmental that is incapable of radical change. It was set up that way and that has only become more entrenched. Do I think this is right? No, I think it’s an incredible inefficient, undemocratic system, but I also think that to retain any sense of democracy it will only change gradually. This is again why I am grateful for Occupy Wallstreet for re-framing  political debate, which Nicholas Kristoff wrote about eloquently in the New York Times.

To shift the conversation in the media and the mind of the general public away from “Will their camp be cleared again? Will the protest movement survive the winter? Who are these hippes?” it is high time that Occupy Wallstreet (even though it is leaderless, I know) put forth some policy alternatives for debate and discussion. This may mean that less than 99% of people support what they are trying to accomplish, but it will also increase their changes of having a lasting impact on our policy and not just our political imagination. It’s also important for the movement to grasp some political and economic realities of the political process in the US. Paul Krugman and Adam Davidson have a few important points to consider.

These economic times have produced a lot of uncertainty, a lot of hardship, and a lot of anger. It’s important to have a public place to go with those feelings and to find a place of hope and inspiration. However, it’s also important to construct sustainable survival strategies, to help people in small ways every day, to promote equity throughout society, and to think about economic and personal innovation despite the system we live in. That’s the role I’ve carved out for myself working in education and the arts. It’s not for everyone, but it’s what works for me. It’s small, it’s quiet, but I believe in it and that’s what I will continue to push for, day-in, day-out.

Things That Make Me Go “Argh”

"Winning a bike race"

I enjoy biking and public goods like the shore parkway bikelane, a relatively clean New York Harbor, and the Verrazzano bridge (even though bikes and pedestrians cannot go on it)

It’s been a long time since there’s been anything “political” on this blog. I’ve honestly stayed away from it, letting my politics play out in my real life and letting the blog be for posting pictures of pretty things that I find and snapshots and reflections from my adventures near and far. But these past few weeks I’ve found myself the maddest I’ve been about politics since George W. Bush was in office! There’s a few big issues that are sticking in my craw, but I feel that they can all be understood via the prism of economic analysis.

First, the issues:

The lawsuit against NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the (amazing!) bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn and general backlash against bike lanes, bikers, and traffic calming measures in New York in general. Never mind that traffic accidents are down, speeding is down on Prospect Park West, bike ridership is up, and business has increased in areas where traffic calming measures have been put into place, such as Broadway.

The backlash against NPR and the move by the federal government to remove all federal funding from NPR and PBS. Despite Republicans constant whining that NPR does not represent them fairly or give them enough air time, NPR often features more republican interviews than democrats and is really one of the few truly balanced news options available for the US. And never mind that PBS is the only channel on television that offers intelligent, non-hyperbolic analysis of the evolving situation in the Middle East (thank you, Charlie Rose).

The move to severely reduce funding for the National Endowment for the Arts on the federal level, and the New York State Council on the Arts on the state level. Yes, we have a deficit, but is cutting funding to the arts, which provides jobs and enriches our culture (in fact, defines it) worth the benefit and savings? I say no.

The move by the federal government to remove all funding from Planned Parenthood. Barefoot and in the kitchen, here we come.

Excuse my sarcasm, but others have done a much better job outlining the situation than I. The question on my mind lately has been, “Where is the coordinated, energetic movement to support and protect these important public assets?” Yes, there’s been campaigns to write your representatives, and some nifty protests, but not widespread, public support. “Why?” I asked myself, “When many people benefit from these resources.” Fortunately, there’s economics.

Basically, it goes back to the theory of public goods versus private goods. A good is public when anyone can access it (as in they are “not excludable”) and one persons use does not diminish another person’s use. Rival goods are when anyone can access it, but a person’s use of that good takes away from another person’s enjoyment of that good. Economist Jonathan Gruber states that most goods we think of as “public goods” are really “impure public goods,” because they are not fully non-excludable or non-rival. ANYWAY… economic theory goes that people undervalue what they can get for free or don’t have to directly pay for. While we all pay for public services like roads, parks, and libraries via our taxes, we tend to undervalue them because we are not directly paying for that service.

Then there’s the problem of a “free rider,” someone who doesn’t pay at all for these services (as in “public goods”) and enjoys their benefits. NPR is a good example. I’m a total free rider. I haven’t given to WNYC in about 4 years, but I listen everyday! Bike lanes are another example. I have absolutely benefited from the work of Janet Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation to make the city a more bike and pedestrian friendly place. I just joined Transportation Alternatives last year to put my money where my wheels and feet are, but mostly I just took for granted that things would get “better” for those of us non-drivers.

So my theory is that most people who enjoy services that tend to be championed by the democrats (but really cross party lines and have nothing to do with political parties really) are free riders who enjoy the benefits without thinking about the cost. In addition, people like drivers who are angry that their parking has been reduced by a bike lane and that they can no longer drive 50 miles an hour down a city street are not thinking about the fact that public resources like city streets can be rival in consumption and that their use of streets takes away from the ability of others to use it. In addition, drivers and parkers are “free riders” because they don’t think of cost of streets and parking and when they are asked to bear even a little bit of it (such as in Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal for downtown Manhattan) they freak out and bring a lawsuit.

This also relates to theories of positive and negatives “externalities”- the additional social benefit (positive) or cost (negative) generated by a good or activity. I would say that bike lanes are a positive externality and thus undervalued, and driving is a negative externality, which means that society bears a cost for driving (through air pollution, dangerous and congested streets, etc.) that is not borne by the drivers themselves.

I was totally vindicated because a writer for the Economist came up with almost the exact same theory in respect to the bike lanes! I am so grateful for the Economist I will certainly renew my subscription!

But my message is this: Think about the benefit you receive from the things you value, whether it be safe streets, quality news coverage, reproductive health and choice, and a vibrant arts community, and think about how you can support those. It need not be with money, but think about the opportunity cost here: when we are talking about public goods, whatever we give up, be it our time, money or energy, we get back even more than we could possibly put a price on.