Was I a State Dept. Stooge?

Events of the last week in Bahrain have made me see how naive I was about the country — even after my visit there last October. Before this last week, I had no idea that much of Bahrain’s internal tensions stem from a Sunni minority’s rule over a Shia majority. Other factors are at work, of course — including basic tenets of democratic civil societies like the rights of free assembly — but the heart of it really does seem to be this artificially imposed sectarian divide. The Sunni king — part of a royal line that goes back over 200 years — even brings in Sunni (or at least non-Shi’ite) foreigners to serve in the police force and military. All this just to ensure that Shi’ites don’t have easy access to weapons.

What really frustrates me is that I was specifically not informed of any of this background when I was brought in by the U.S. State Dept. to visit the country last fall. I’ve gone back over the literature they gave me, and nowhere does it mention the sectarian split. My foreign national handler (who I now have to presume was Sunni) never made mention of it, nor did any of the people or institutions I visited. (These places included an American university operating in Bahrain, a college for wealthy female students, an art society, and a journalists association.)

Maybe it didn’t come up because it’s considered impolite to talk about such things. But I would have expected better from the State Dept. to inform me, an official visitor, about the political realities on the ground. After all, in Egypt, Algeria, and Israel/Palestine, my American hosts were very upfront about the political/ethnic divisions in the respective countries. (I tried to do as much independent research as I could before I got there, but there were no guidebooks for Bahrain to be had, and I was visiting so many countries in such a condensed period that I just didn’t have time read much about the country before I got there.) Considering that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based out of Bahrain, I’m forced to question the motives of my embassy compatriots there. So once again American “interests” conflict with our supposed “values”…

And now I think back even more on the walking-on-eggshells quality of my visit there, right in the middle of Bahrain’s parliamentary election season. A very denuded Parliament, as it so happens. Which makes it even more strange that the State Dept. invited me there — as a “political cartoonist” — yet asked me to refrain from breaching certain sensitive topics. Many of which I was blissfully ignorant of. It makes my head spin.

Bahrain is a tiny country, pretty well off, highly educated. It’s littered with Western chain restaurants: McDonald’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Fuddruckers, the list goes on. I got no sense of it being a place on the verge of an explosion. And yet now we see the king cracking down hard on what appear to be very peaceful demonstrators. Seniors, women, children — all victims of repeated tear gas attacks, rubber bullets, shotguns, and beatings.

A young man I met at one of my workshops there has been corresponding with me on Facebook. He was in the Pearl Square roundabout until about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, leaving just a few hours before the riot police moved in, clearing the square (and killing at least five people). A friend of his, a 23-year-old engineering student, was among the dead. My Bahraini Facebook friend implored me, “Please help us.. we need world’s help..!!” Surreal.

A recent tweet by a Bahraini citizen with the handle RedhaHaji sums it up: “Hard to hold back tears. This is not real. Not happening. We hear things like this happen in other places not our home.”

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Bahrain — The Next Domino?

I guess after what happened in Egypt I shouldn’t be surprised by anything, but I definitely wouldn’t have guessed that protests would now be taking place in Bahrain. As I wrote when I visited the country back in October, Bahrain seemed stable — not exactly a representative democracy, but certainly much more so than its immediate neighbor Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has only had elected representatives since 2002, with two rounds of elections having taken place since then, but on the whole I got the sense that people there seemed happy. The artists and students I met there all seemed proud of their country and its relative openness. But I guess general prosperity doesn’t necessarily mean people are truly satisfied with their lot.

After all, as I observed during my visit: "My [U.S.] Embassy handlers advise me to speak on any topic except the elections. … Politics is a touchy subject here in Bahrain. There’s no tradition of public debates here, so campaigning seems limited to six-foot-tall roadside campaign posters and small-scale electoral rallies." Not exactly a vibrant public square. And I guess the proof is in the streets right now.

We’re really living in incredible times!

Domino Theory — 2011 Edition

I've been watching with some interest the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia (also known as the "Twitter Revolution"), as protesters in that country have successfully overthrown a corrupt, autocratic government. Seeing as how I recently visited a neighboring country in the Maghreb — Algeria — I asked an American friend living there if similar rumblings were being heard where he was. Turns out there have been indeed — as well as protests and "riots" in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Lebanon. My friend reports that Algeria went through about a week of rioting, witnessing five dead, 800 injured, and more than 1000 arrests. The Algerians feel great solidarity with the Tunisians, particularly in regard to the autocratic, corrupt nature of their government; and what is happening in Tunisia has sparked optimism that maybe things in Algeria could also change. According to my contact, however, the Algerian police and military were very restrained in dealing with the protests, with many of the injuries actually being suffered by the government forces just trying to restore calm. So that was smart (though obviously painful for the cops).

Reading stories like this — and what's been happening in Cairo recently — is so strange to me, having walked those same, then quiet, streets, just a few short months ago. As with in Burma, I'm reminded that what seems to be a complacent citizenry can rise up quickly against their repressive government when provoked. While I was in the Middle East, I often heard about the infamous "red line," the theoretical line that dissenters could not cross. In Algeria and Egypt, the red line was understood in media circles as being anything directly critical of the military or the ruling family. So it was okay to write about "corruption" or to attack certain government figures, but never go beyond that. Well, it seems in recent days those red lines are being crossed and stamped out.

(I'm also struck by how big a role Facebook and Twitter have played in all this. I can't tell you how many students, artists, and journalists I met during my travels in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and Israel/Palestine who had FB accounts and have since friended me. How could these governments not have foreseen the way these social networks would enable people to work together and plan actions? It's really mind-boggling.) As "my man in Algiers" writes, "What happens next will be critical. If Tunisia has real elections and installs an inclusive, democratic government like they say they will, the rest of the Middle East will really start to shake." My instant association with all this, of course, is 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Such a thing taking place in the countries of the Middle East is incredible to contemplate. I mean, three of the countries I visited last year — Algeria, Egypt, and Bahrain — are all classic oligarchies.

I'm saddened to hear, however, that my own government's pragmatic concerns are taking precedence over this potential explosion of democracy. After all, the U.S. enjoys good relations with the autocratic leaders of both Algeria and Egypt, both of whom assist us in the "war against terrorism." True to form, my friend reports that "some of the latest regional media stories are all about how terrified the U.S. is over the prospect of the Tunisian Revolution spreading throughout the region." He goes on to sarcastically comment, "Yeah, that would really suck for us if all the corrupt dictators were swept out of power and replaced by democratically elected governments…"

I'm certainly no expert, but it seems pretty obvious to me that people living under a fair, representative system would be less inclined to spread fear, terror, and violence — and less likely to target countries like the U.S. that they see as hypocrites when it comes to spreading democracy…

New Orleans’ Perfect Storm

Yesterday kicked off a momentous fortnight in New Orleans, with a mayoral election, the Saints’ participation in the Super Bowl, and Mardi Gras all taking place in a span of eleven days.

Saturday’s election of Mitch Landrieu ushered in the city’s first new mayor since Hurricane Katrina. (Ray Nagin was term-limited — and surely would have been voted out this time). You may recall that back in August, I signed a copy of A.D. for one of the mayoral candidates, State Senator Edwin R. Murray, at The Doctor’s A.D. release party. Well, Senator Murray pulled out of the mayoral race last month. In any case, although Landrieu will be New Orleans’ first white mayor in over thirty years, he won 66% percent of the vote, including a large share of the African American electorate. Let’s hope Landrieu truly is a mayor of unity and progress, and speeds up the Crescent City’s post-Katrina rebuilding.

As for the Saints, all eyes will be on them and their stars Drew Brees and Reggie Bush this evening. And when I say "all eyes," I really mean it — I’ve never seen a more football-crazy town than the Big Easy. I’ve lived in some big sports towns in my day, including Chicago and my own New York City, but New Orleans beats ’em all when it comes to the Saints. They truly are a team that unites folks from disparate backgrounds: black & white, rich & poor, corporate-type & artiste, etc. — which is all the more remarkable given that for most of the Saints’ history they’ve been worse than mediocre. But this year they’ve been pretty damn good, and it should be a good match with the (slightly) favored Indianapolis Colts (whose quarterback, Peyton Manning, is a New Orleans boy himself).

So what’s A.D.‘s connection to the Saints and the Superbowl? Check this out: Last August, right at the beginning of the NFL season, A.D. character Leo McGovern published an editorial in his music zine Antigravity. It took the form of a dream he’d had, and went like this: "It’s the morning of February 7th, 2010. I’m cleaning my Mid-City apartment and making the final preparations for what will surely be the greatest party ever thrown. All the food is simple — chips, dips, vegetable trays, and pre-made sandwiches, as to not give the hosts (me, my wife and our roommate) any chance of having to be away from the television for any reason. . . . So I’m now putting the finishing touches on a clean apartment, tapping the kegs and arranging the sandwiches, because tonight we’re watching the Saints play in the Super Bowl."

Unfortunately, Leo’s dream didn’t reveal who won the big game, but like any good New Orleanian, Leo will "have two kegs of a local amber and, for backup, a few bottles of a local rum — enough to make us forget, if it comes to that." But should the Saints win tonight, you can be sure next Tuesday’s Mardi Gras parade will be a city-wide party to remember.

Election Day Time Capsule

My MoveOn.org Obama pin finally arriving — on election day… Testing the "electioneering" rules and wearing my pin to the polling place — only to have the poll worker make me remove it… Pulling the lever with pride (and hope)… Spending the day in strangled anticipation and worrying about the Bradley Effect… My sister-in-law's 9 p.m. self-assessment: "Cautiously very optimistic"… The strangled yelp of triumph from an anonymous ABC staffer when that network called the election for Obama… Eleven-o-clock tears of joy… Jesse Jackson's tears… Celebratory calls from my West Coast pal Jake and my East Coast mother-in-law Nancy… All those stunned happy crowds… Reading all those joyful Facebook status tweets… The Onion's headline, "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job"… Brian Williams on NBC showing a poster of America's first 43 presidents — all white men — and the profound reminder of the historic significance of the moment… McCain's gracious and eloquent concession… Praying that there were no crazies in that Grant Park crowd. When Obama and his family emerged on stage in Grant Park, my one overriding thought was  "Please nobody shoot him" … and "Michelle Obama's dress — WTF?!" … A victory speech that struck all the right notes, without being triumphalist…  The cars honking in celebration on Eastern Parkway… The guy parading down the street at 1 a.m. blowing a trumpet… The crowds of thousands in Washington, D.C., storming the White House gates chanting "Yes we can!"…

Yes, we did!

Bay-beeeee

Recently, Phoebe has discovered the word (and concept) "baby." Wherever she sees a baby — in real life, in books, on TV, on her jars of food, even photos of herself — she yells out "bay-beeeee!" She’s totally fixated.

The funniest thing, though, is she thinks pictures of balding old men are babies too. Specifically, one of the guys running for President:

John McCain

Presidential Doodlers

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6118892

Reagan supposedly considered a career as a cartoonist before turning to politics. His drawings are as puffy & trite as his public persona, proving that he chose the right profession.

Make sure you check out the gallery: Ulysses S. Grant can really draw a horse. Herbert Hoover’s geometric scribblings are fascinating. LBJ’s three-headed monster is disturbing.

not surprising…

You are a
Social Liberal
(80% permissive)

and an…
Economic Liberal
(10% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Socialist

Link: The Politics Test on OkCupid Free Online Dating
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

‘tho i question what an “economic liberal (10% permissive)” means…

Zombies and Planning for the Apocalypse

I was never a horror movie fan as a kid, but lately I’ve become attracted to them, specifically to zombie movies. I’d seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead some years ago, but recently I took in the sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I also saw two British takes on the genre, the hilarious but gruesome Sean of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Oh yeah, and I caught a viewing of the low-budget classic, Evil Dead, tho’ I don’t know if that counts as a zombie flick.

I’m very interested in the use of zombies as a societal metaphor: about racism & xenophobia, about commercialism, and militarism. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which takes place in a shopping mall, is particularly noteworthy in this regard. His films seem to strike that perfect balance of being straight-ahead horror and carrying a social message without being heavy-handed or didactic. And they’re weird as hell!

Obviously, recent events have put me in the zombie frame of mind: Y2K, 9/11, Islamic fundamentalism, George Bush, bird flu, and Hurricane Katrina, to name a few. I grew up in the 80s during the baroque era of the Cold War, fearful of mutually assured destruction and nuclear winter — but I was never as afraid, or fatalistic, as I have felt in the last 5–6 years. 9/11 is what really set it off; I often feel like I have some form of PTSD because of that. But it’s the irrationality of the present moment that’s really scary. And zombies are the ultimate representation of irrationality.

Coincidentally, a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece (in, of all places, the Sunday “Styles” section) all about how zombies are “hot” again. I thought the piece had some good observations about the phenomenon — and made me feel very “cutting edge”:
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So baby gimme dat “Toot toot”

Image hosting by PhotobucketSo on Friday night Sari and I attended the premiere of The Civilians’ Nobody’s Lunch, and I finally got to see the promo postcard I did. Turns out they also used my art for the posters advertising the show (one of them was five feet high!), and for the program. And perhaps the biggest compliment of the evening was finding out afterward that one of the show’s key props — the “suspicious package” — was based on my drawing!

The production itself was amazing. Nobody’s Lunch is a plotless cabaret-style fragmented mirror image of our current society. We all know we’re being lied to — by the government, by the media, by our own families — and yet we don’t care. Plus alien remote viewers and lizard-men! It’s scary, depressing, funny, and entertaining. The songs were great, and the cast of six wowed us with their performances. Sari & laughed our butts off, and then had a lot to talk about afterwards. (There’s a pretty insightful review in today’s Times that pretty well echoes my thoughts on it.)

I’m tickled to be associated with The Civilians — especially now that I’ve seen one of their productions — and I encourage you to see the show yourself before their limited New York run ends.