Monthly Archives: February 2015

Socialists Fighting Corporatism

Hollande’s Socialists went into “emergency mode” this Tuesday in an all-or-nothing push to reform a model of French political organization that dates back centuries. The contentious Loi Macron,  among other reforms, introduces licensing controls and price restrictions for public notaries. These reforms would free up access to public notaries, at the potential price of dissuading equal access to agents of the law and to the notarial profession itself.

The rhetoric surrounding this debate has unburied ancient words–privilège, corporation, even ordre–that reveal a societal tension that dates to the Old Regime. The French model of corporatism grants privileges to a select group, with clear functions and a distinct identity. This common identity ideally empowers these men and women, yet retains them as loyal agents of the State.

Bureaucratic weight always accrues over time, though, and the personal quality of this French species of bureaucracy makes privilège extremely difficult to repeal in a time of crisis. Members of the maliciously dysfunctional Parisian guild system successfully obstructed free-market reforms throughout the eighteenth century, even on the eve of the Revolution itself. Continue reading


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Digital Humanities at the New York Philharmonic

Abraham Lincoln's memorial concert program. Source:  NY Times via the New York Philharmonic Archives

Abraham Lincoln’s memorial concert program. Source: NY Times via the New York Philharmonic Archives

The NYPhil’s big concert release is here! Every concert program from 1842 to the present is now available and searchable online. There’s even a  writeup in the New York Times with the following comment from Harvard scholar Carol Oja:

Conducting research about musical, institutional, and cultural history is vastly enhanced by the Philharmonic’s ambitious and important digitization of its archives. Not only does it create open access to users around the globe, but digital searches can yield unexpected surprises, jostling longstanding historical narratives.

The Archives’ new Subscribers Project digitized the Gilded Age subscriber notebooks and address books from the Philharmonic. You can now check out who subscribed to the Phil a century ago and where they lived in the city. Lots of cool tools for anybody interested in the history of music or material culture in New York from the last 150 years.

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Why Big Hero 6 is Disney’s Most Progressive Film Yet

Big Hero 6 tells the story of a whiz kid named Hiro who teams up with four faithful sidekicks and a gentle-giant robot to avenge his brother’s death. Though the plot seems formulaic, the film triumphs in its sensitive and creative treatment of modern-day concerns—diversity, technology, and mental health. Hiro’s psychological authenticity lends the film poignancy and weight, and the cast of diverse, stereotype-defying side characters provides progressive appeal. The result is a movie that couples traditional Disney themes with twenty-first century sensibilities.

Released last November, the animated film takes place in San Fransokyo, a beautiful fusion of San Francisco and Tokyo in which cherry blossoms adorn steep streets, and classical Japanese pagodas stand beside skyscrapers. Virtuoso artists created the setting with exquisite technique and impressive attention to detail.

The protagonist, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), is a fourteen-year old science wunderkind who aspires to follow in the footsteps of his talented older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). When Tadashi suffers an unjust death, Hiro solicits help from Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot Tadashi programmed to be a healthcare companion. Baymax’s huggable figure and adorable face make him an unlikely candidate for a vengeance mission, but upgrades on his armor and technology render him a formidable vinyl warrior. Tadashi’s four best friends from “nerd school” soon join the squad, and the team of six sets out to exact revenge. Continue reading

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Mo’ Diversity, Mo’ Problems

TV Review: Fresh off the Boat
Premiered February 4, 2015 on ABC

I watched the pilot of “Fresh off the Boat” with apprehension, and it was disappointing. Sure, there were some poignant scenes like the bully teasing Eddie about his chow mien lunch, and how his parents stood up for him before the principal of the school when Eddie was called a “chink,” but Eddie Huang’s on-screen family bore numerous other frustrating inaccuracies.The polished look of the mother with impeccable makeup and outfits, along with her not-quite-right Chinese accent, and the lack of any accent at all on the father’s end didn’t quite click in my mind. Scenes like the juxtaposition between the mother and her rollerskating suburban plastics made me cringe, and my suspension of disbelief wasn’t strong enough to overrule the casual, conversational references made to American personalities (sure, a kid who adores Biggie might make constant allusions to the rapper, but his immigrant parents from another culture certainly wouldn’t drop something like “that’s so like a sluttier Madonna”). Not to mention the terribly spoken Mandarin on the show. However, thankfully, the show grew on me and the second episode was much better than the first. I was especially won over by the contrast between the tiger mother and the father wearing rose-colored lenses, where Constance Wu’s character’s stereotypical Asian stinginess and strict parenting clash with Randall Park’s character’s romanticism, rooted in his faith in the American dream and the goodness of people.

An aside: my thoughts on the accuracy of “FOB” come with a caveat, since Eddie Huang’s experience wasn’t quite my own. I can identify with some of the experiences portrayed in the show, but coming from a part of the US where Asian Americans are pretty dominant (the SF Bay Area), I certainly do not fully understand being the token Asian in a white community. So I leave some wiggle room in my judgement for those whose experiences might have more fully mirrored that of Eddie’s.

As referenced above, “FOB” is based off Eddie Huang’s memoir, reflective of his life as a first generation Taiwanese American, growing up in Florida with parents who struggled to keep their restaurant afloat. Since the show is clearly representing his situation, it is interesting to see what he thinks of it. His first reaction is that it is horribly inaccurate as well:

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

However, his opinion evolves:
After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience. I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now. You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference….

… It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Those three minutes are the holy trinity Melvin, Randall, Constance, Hudson, Forrest, Ian, and I sacrificed everything for. Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad…

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On the Significance of Delhi

1. The reason Delhi elections are important to Modi & BJP is that it threatens to destroy the biggest myth Modi trades on: he’s invincible.

— Puram (@puram_politics) February 4, 2015

It has now been eight months since the NDA – or to be honest, Narendra Damodardas Modi as his suits tell us – took power after the general elections in India. It was a most authoritative parliamentary performance, though with the share of the vote they won, it appears that they were mostly successful in campaigning rigourously where the Congress atrophied rapidly – in the Hindu heartland among other former Congress strongholds. In terms of the public debate, Modi won absolutely hands down.

The venal cable and print media made much of Modi’s poor record in protecting Muslims in his state from a pogrom, though mainly through innuendo and without a direct discussion of the facts. At the same time, all we heard was wide-eyed, gushing coverage of the “Modi wave” and how he presents a decisiveness, authority and charisma that no one else really has. The master soap opera director Arnab Goswami played this at once mystifying and clarifying role in his famous interview with Modi before the election. Previously – and subsequently – known by his trademark bombast and an almost heroic inability to allow his interlocutors to get a word in, he was struck dumb in Modi’s presence, and spoke with a respect usually reserved for one’s priest during an important ceremony. Arnab, as we affectionately call him, was writing for us a popular and riveting story: “Here’s this seemingly awful, but powerful and charismatic man. We are at once drawn to him but also repulsed by him. Will we really vote for him? He speaks very well, right? Isn’t he so decisive?” For Arnab and the “bazaaru” Indian media (“for sale”, or “in the market”, a term lovingly given by Modi himself in response to their coverage of the BJP’s defeat in these state elections), Modi was the bad boy that the public craved but didn’t want to introduce to its parents, i.e. the US State Department.

The verdict was clear. We all knew that the BJP, the RSS, and the Hindu Mahasabha have been involved in the darkest episodes in India’s history, from the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, to riots in Bombay in the 1990s, and Gujarat in 2004. We knew this very well, but the Congress proved so abysmal in government, we would happily pick anyone else. Even more encouraging, this anyone else promised development, pride, self-sufficiency – all in homespun Hindi rhetoric and the gravitas of a mafioso. Business interests in western and northern India saw which way the wind was blowing, and expected from him what he had offered in Gujarat as Chief Minister – sufficient deregulation and privatisation for the establishment of new oligopolies and monopolies. Riots and pogroms aren’t bad for business, as long as they are limited to lower-caste peripheries of major cities or the rural hinterlands. We were thus promised economic growth and we knew well enough to expect the growth of violence and hatred. We lived with the certainty that the hatred of the RSS hasn’t really affected us until now so why will it in the future? “Yaar unko humse kya lena dena? (“dude, what would they have to do with us?”).
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Culture Crash: From Dialogue to the Cloisters

Another review of Culture Crash from William Giraldi in The New Republic:

American individualism has come to resemble a kind of hermitism, each artist before his own effulgent machine, without taut lifelines to his fellow strivers and makers. The roiling and reciprocal group, so central to the early achievements of Lowell and Plath and Sexton, has been replaced by synthetic socializing online, or by the cloistered academic department, which is how many artists in America, if they’re the lucky ones, are able to remain in the middle class. But when you’re an artist in academia, you’re only a part-time artist, at best. We’ve fled our public places of reciprocity and dialogue, and jettisoned any commitment to a joint culture. “For culture to work, we need a common language,” Timberg writes, “and it’s impossible to have one when we are becoming more culturally and economically divided every day.”

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Postpone Nigeria’s Elections

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan just began last-minute discussions to delay Nigeria’s mid-February elections. It’s the right decision, as the upcoming election will be a nightmare. 68 million voters require plastic identification cards to cast their ballots, but only 24 million have been distributed. Voter confidence in fair elections has accordingly plummeted, from 51% in 2011 (the last presidential race) to a chilly 13% today.

The opposition seeks to stay the course; they fear, with reason, that President Jonathan’s electoral meddling could fudge the election’s outcome. While observers, including John Kerry, have echoed this concern, it’s even more critical that 30 million of these votes can be properly tracked. It doesn’t matter how carefully the votes are counted if only 13% of the population believes in the results.

Former U.S. ambassador Princeton Lyman proposes a year-long Directory à la romaine to exorcise both Boko Haram and local corruption before another round of elections are held. It would be difficult to form this year-long coalition, but even a short delay still improves upon Nigeria’s current situation.

No matter the outcome, we are likely to witness post-electoral religious violence on a greater level than that of 2004, 2007, and 2011. The country will limp on as it has before, hobbled by its corrupt institutions even as it cowers from the depredations of Boko Haram.

UPDATE: Nigeria’s elections have been delayed until March 28.

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