Category Archives: Culture

Spaces of Hope: Radical Movements Need Radical Spaces

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One of the murals on the Ché Café in San Diego (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

To build radical movements, you need radical spaces, argues Arun Gupta, who looks at the important roles San Diego’s Ché Café and Brooklyn’s Mayday Space play in their communities.

by Arun Gupta Telesur December 2, 2014

Standing outside the Ché Café, wedged in a hillside on the University of California San Diego campus, David Morales says “the radicals there terrified me” the first time he visited in 1987.

Just 18 years old, Morales was bewildered by the political and music scene there. It was alien to his experience growing up in conservative San Diego, a major port for the U.S. navy sandwiched between the massive Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton to the north and the militarized border with Mexico to the south.

Morales quickly warmed to the “incredible mix of cultural expression from students and youth,” and fell in love with the Ché Café’s eclectic music shows that spanned reggae to punk rock. He met his future wife at the shed-like cafe and it is a place infused with their familiy’s memories.

After graduating from UCSD in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, the 45-year-old Morales’ focus shifted to his family, and he would only “show up now and then to an event” at the space.

Now he’s a fixture once more at the Ché Café, along with other old-timers and a slew of youths, because the UCSD administration is on the verge of booting out the collective, which has been running the cafe for 34 years.

Claiming there are safety concerns about the condition of the buildings, the administration is close to securing a five-day notice to vacate, after months of maneuvering to squeeze both funding and student support.

Café supporters dispute the claims, pointing out that in April the university’s own facility inspector concluded that that the space “is looking good in terms of safety” other than one minor item of concern next to the main building.

Monty Kroopkin, who started at UCSD in 1970, is the in-house expert on the collective’s decades-long battles with the administration. He says the three-building facility was established in 1966 and originally known as the Coffee House Express, or C.H.E. for short. In 1979, after the administration tried to turn it into a faculty club, the students gained control and established the Ché Café, changing the meaning of the acronym to “Cheap Healthy Eats.”

Since then, the collective has been fending off attempts by the administration to shut the cafe. UCSD officials have invoked health and safety issues repeatedly, going so far as to change the cafe’s locks in 2000, before supporters occupied it, forcing the administration to back down. That’s why Kroopkin, Morales and others are concerned about the looming eviction order, but are not yet hitting the panic button.

The threat of closure has generated an influx of supporters. Ché Café recently delivered a petition with 14,000 signatures asking the administration to halt the eviction and negotiate a new lease.

While the administration claims the facility is used mainly by outsiders (which is true of the high-profile and independently-operated La Jolla Playhouse on the UCSD campus), students occupied an academic hall on November 24 in support of the Ché Café. They were also opposing planned tuition increases of 28 percent over in the next five in the entire University of California system.

The Ché collective is growing, and members meet regularly to formulate responses to the administration’s moves.

When I popped by on a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-November, they were discussing a university decree that they halt the cafe’s programming; its cultural lifeblood and business model. Before the meeting a handful of us gathered outside, as Morales’ youngest daughter and two friends raced around the patio, past a stenciled painting of an AK-47 emblazoned with the slogan, “No Gods No Masters.”

To those who’ve found a home in the Ché Café, it represents radical possibilities. In 2003 Trevor Stutzman found in the Ché an all-age venue steeped in San Diego’s “rich music history.” He says at age 15 he was “exposed to a real alternative, a non-hierarchical worker collective. It affects you the rest of your life and how you see the world.”

While Stutzman attended college elsewhere, he has been a regular at the cafe that is “a bridge between the community and university.” The others nod in agreement. Kroopkin adds that the cafe’s existence raises the question, “Is the university’s role to serve its ‘clientele’ or is it to serve the broader community?”

The single-story wooden buildings are splashed with radical-history murals by painters like Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero, whose works are also found in San Diego’s famed (and contested) Chicano Park.

Morales guides me through the eucalyptus grove on the far reaches of the cafe grounds.He reminisces that it’s a place where he’s “watched owls make love,” to the organic vegetable garden in back. It’s also the place he and his wife buried our eldest son’s placenta.

There I meet Jeanine Webb, studying toward a doctorate in poetics at UCSD, who has been a collective member for three months.

Webb laments, “There are so few radical spaces left on University of California campuses.” She argues the administration’s plan is to remove “student spaces that provide a place where free thought and culture can exist because they don’t support the neoliberal profit motive and have ‘uncontrollable’ aspects inherent to them.”

Kroopkin says over the years the university has been hostile to the Ché Café and the three other student-run cooperatives on campus: the General Store Co-op, Groundwork Books, and the Food Co-op. He explains that they are the only student-run and cooperatively-organized entities at the university with their own revenue streams, bank accounts, payroll and insurance. “They are legally autonomous,” Kroopkin says. “Not even the UCSD student government is autonomous, unlike the UCLA or Berkeley bodies.”

That is the heart of the conflict, says Webb. Spaces like the Ché Café do not fit into the corporate university, which is why she says the administration wants to “sanitize” them.

It’s hard to disagree. What’s happening in the University of California system and the Ché Café is a microcosm of U.S. society.

Radical spaces

Over time, as the market has extended its tendrils into all parts of daily life, radical spaces have disappeared in much of U.S. society.

In the late 19th century, agrarian grange halls and entire utopian communities were commonplace. Decades later, labor temples, radical coffeehouses, theaters, publishers, bars and bookstores had their heyday along with socialist and communist halls and camps.

While you can still find radical spaces in many college campuses, union halls and cultural spaces, they are all under siege, save perhaps those hosted by progressive religious outfits.

Radical spaces in workplaces, public squares, churches, schools, and neighborhoods are breeding grounds for social movements of every stripe.

Factories have been a primary site of struggle since the industrial era began. Karl Marx argued capitalists would be their undoing, by bringing together laborers under one roof they would realize their common interests as a working class and overthrown the capitalist system.

While that prediction of solely a worker-led revolution seems unlikely to come to pass in an era when production has been outsourced through technology and fragmented around the globe, movements are unmoored without space to incubate, grow and survive.

Occupy Wall Street would never have existed without holding common space in dozens of cities, and it never recovered once it lost those spaces no matter how much activists told themselves, “You can’t evict an idea.”

Taking over public space enables everyday life to be reimagined. After Occupy took root in the fall of 2011, I would stand on the steps overlooking Zuccotti Park, just a stone’s throw from the New York Stock Exchange, and watch as hundreds of people clumped in knots exchanged ideas, food, books, technology, art, media, medical care, counseling, clothing, shelter, emotions and more. Not one exchange was mediated by money, which was in sharp contrast to the fevered consumption all around in Manhattan.

Different political and social forms were fermenting, especially ones where the market held far less sway than is normal in daily life.

As powerful and widespread as the protests have been against the failure to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed Black teen Michael Brown, outbursts in the street can’t replace spaces where community and trust is built, leadership and organization developed, and vision and strategy debated and implemented.

The reason so many radical spaces have closed down is the same reason Ché Café is imperiled: money.

Recently one of the most storied alternative spaces in the country, New York City’s Brecht Forum, shut down. A popular education institute and theater, the Brecht cited financial difficulties as the reason for packing it in after nearly 40 years, but some sources within the organization indicated there was a political decision to turn down substantial funding that could have saved it because it would have likely meant shifting its organizational form or vision.

An activist space in Brooklyn known as The Commons is filling some of the needs met by a radical space, by providing classes in leftist history and politics. Its funding model is based on the investing savvy of its politically-minded owner, who purchased the building years ago in a depressed area that has gentrified, like much of the city. There’s nothing wrong with politically-minded philanthropy as the radical left needs all the help it can get.

Another space taking shape elsewhere in Brooklyn aims to be a comprehensive community resource while adapting to market realities. Ana Nogueira and McNair Scott are the principals behind the Mayday Community Space. I worked with the two for years at the New York City Indymedia Center, which got off to a roaring start in 2000, when a left-leaning hactivist donated a midtown office space to the group of media makers.

Noguiera is a former producer at Democracy Now!, and half of the team that made the award-winning film about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Roadmap to Apartheid. She says her inspiration for Mayday comes from one of her formative experiences as a teenager, “seeing a show at the Wetlands Preserve and discovering a whole world of environmental activism.” During its 12-year run, Wetlands was located in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan and fused live concerts with environmental activism, but was steamrollered by gentrification in 2001.

Nogueira says she hopes Mayday Space “plays a similar role, drawing people to music shows and introducing them to movements,” while facilitating “affordable space for people to use in a city where rents are super high.”

To do that they’ve formed two separate entities: a for-profit bar, “where you come in, put down money, and get a drink,” and a separate nonprofit community space. The bar has investors who will receive a share of profits. Nogueira says up to 25 percent of the profits will go “to front-line activist groups who need quick infusions of cash.” She explains it’s meant for groups that don’t have the time to apply for grants, offering as possibilities they batted around a protest called on short notice or support needed after a nonviolent direct action.

“Our investors support this vision and mission of sustaining a community space in Bushwick and a rapid-response activist fund,” Nogueira says. The bar will also subsidize the community space. It got a test run this summer before the People’s Climate March after Avaaz and 350.org paid Mayday’s landlord $20,000 for three months use of the space.

Nogueira says, “It was amazing to see the place come to life. We couldn’t have picked a better inaugural event. People from across the city saw there was a space that could be a resource and it introduced us to the Bushwick community where we’re located. It introduced the space to movements we want to be connected to, and they got to see what the space could be. And it was a dry run on how to manage a dozen volunteers, create a safe space for everyone, and keep it open for 20 hours a day.”

They already have a well-known tenant in the form of Make The Road, an immigrant-focused workers center that has successfully agitated for workplace rights and against wage theft in many cases. Nogueira says, “Make The Road is going to host workshops on adult literacy, English classes, and citizenship education in the Mayday Space. We are going to complement that with Spanish classes, tenants’ rights workshops, and legal workshops such as workplace rights and know your rights workshops.”

The five-member Mayday collective is serious about serving the community, mainly comprised of low-income Puerto Rican and Mexican families. Tenants’ rights is one of the best tools to slow down the maelstrom of gentrification that’s been unleashed on Bushwick by the HBO show, Girls, which is set there.

Nogueira says local groups planning to do workshops in the space include Bushwick Copwatch and Families Against Police Violence. Other projects in the works include starting a rooftop farm with youth in the community and cooking classes

Nogueira says the project holds unknown potential, “We hope it will facilitate movement building across issues and be a neutral ground to meet where people can cross pollinate. We’ve seen that happen already through the climate organizing where people also ended up discussing police brutality, what’s happening in Ferguson, and NSA spying.”

That’s precisely the kind of role Ché Café has played through its history, says Monty Kroopkin. Its crowning achievement was serving as an organizing hub for the student campaign in the eighties that pressured the University of California to divest more than $3 billion of investments from companies doing business in South Africa. Nelson Mandela singled out the UC students’ role in helping topple apartheid when he visited Berkley, California, in 1990 after gianing freedom.

No one knows what the future holds for spaces like the Ché Café and Mayday, but their mere existence is a beacon of hope for new movements and activists alike.

To support the Ché Café and for the latest updates, go to checafe.ucsd.edu.The Mayday Space is holding a fundraising campaign to help them open successfully next year.

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Filed under Culture, Education, Occupy Movement, Political Organizing, Public Space

Bitcoin Activism: How Michelle Malkin And Suey Park Found Common Cause In Hashtag Movements

by Arun K. Gupta Huffington Post April 17, 2014

Suey Park is the Bitcoin of activism. Her hashtag movements are a digital phenomenon. Her value is determined by how much others buy into her. The lack of institutional backing allows her to disrupt the status quo. And just like digital currencies, hashtag activism is vulnerable to shadowy intrigues and corrupting influences.

When Park sent out a 115-character tweet at 7:55 p.m. on March 27, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it,” she ignited a media firestorm. She was playing on a skit by The Colbert Report mocking the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, accusing the faux news show of racism.

The #CancelColbert was all spectacle with colorful characters, outrageous conduct, and lessons in the power and peril of new media. Pundits needed only to generate a new round of controversy to propel the outrage machine, thereby allowing them to ruminate on three of their favorite topics at once: the news, television and Twitter. Park was engulfed by controversy and vitriol, and many people flocked to defend her, supporting her position that the media mocks Asians because they are an easy target and opposing the loathsome death and rape threats aimed at Park.

Park, a 23-year-old “activist and writer,” became a Twitter star in December 2013 with #NotYourAsianSidekick, which encouraged Asian-American youth to use social media to tell empowering stories and challenge stifling stereotypes. Park rapidly built a powerful following, but the site also facilitated the aggression against her. The ability to mask oneself on Twitter has spawned a bestiary of trolls, hackers,doppelgangers, bots, pranksters, and real-life sociopaths who punch down outspoken women of color because that’s how America works.

The openness of platforms like Bitcoin and Twitter is also their weakness, allowing dark recesses to be carved out for malevolent ends. Digital money entices crooks who pilfer strings of code that comprise the currency as a path to fabulous riches, while social media attracts those looking for a shortcut to power and prestige. It’s what led Park into the orbit of Michelle Malkin, the radical right’s Asian sidekick.

Hashtag activism is ancient history for the web, but Malkin, a new-media controversialist, has adopted Park’s language, tactics, and social media skills, and it appears she is influencing Park to target “liberal racists.” Malkin hybridized hashtag activism with reactionary politics by creating #MyRightWingBiracialFamily in January 2014. Accusing MSNBC of racism, her campaign swiftly went viral and elicited an apology from the news network. Evidence shows Malkin came into contact with Park at this point. So when Park started #CancelColbert, Malkin charged in with her huge network and ample resources primed to skewer liberal racism.

Park did not respond to requests for an interview, but sources in contact with Park say she opposes Malkin’s extremism. Malkin’s writings are published on a white supremacist website, and she minimizes torture at Guantanamo, is anti-gay, deals in Orientalist stereotypes of Muslims, and cuts down women based on their appearance. Her book on internment was so flawed the Historians’ Committee for Fairness denounced it as “a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness.”

Less than two hours after Park initiated #CancelColbert, Malkin enthusiastically backed it. Park was immediately bombarded with tweets warning of the dangers of allying with Malkin, but she said very little despite Malkin writing an Islamophobic defense of Park that used #CancelColbert to argue liberals were the real racists, not conservatives. Park has also been silent about the fact Malkin wrote a book justifying the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, called Asian campaign donors to Hillary Clinton “limited-English-proficient and smellier than stinky tofu,” and once dismissed campaigns against anti-Asian racism as “self-pitying and grievance-mongering.”

Park has become a sensation with just 23,000 Twitter followers, a scattering compared with Malkin’s 693,000 fans. What sets Park apart is her savvy use of Twitter, flowing from her metaphysical vision that “Digital lives will shape history.” Park and her followers float in digital ether where avatars, buzzwords and representations are terra firma. It’s similar to Bitcoin enthusiasts who proselytize that monetary algorithms, online wallets and virtual keys will reshape the global economy, but fall prey to classic con-man scams. It’s a shame because Park is right that liberal racism is real. Democrats are as complicit as the right in locking up brown people at home and blowing up brown people abroad. But when a young anti-racist activist who writes about “imperial timelines,” anti-capitalism and decolonization finds herself in cahoots with an extremist like Malkin, it reveals Twitter is more useful for political manipulation than collective revolution.

EARLY WARNINGS

The #NotYourAsianSidekick landed Park on The Guardian’s list of “Top 30 young people in digital media.” One detail left out of the story is that the movement was shepherded collectively by Park and by co-creator and feminist Juliet Shen, facilitators for specific topics, and organizations like 18 Million Rising. In January, Park took sole credit in a bit of humblebragging, writing, “The viral success of #NotYourAsianSidekick after I first tweeted the tag on December 15, 2013, wasn’t about me, but all of us.” By February, Shen and 18 Million Rising had fallen out with Park.

Park’s next triumph came on Jan. 14 when she scorched the CBS sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” accusing it of yellowface in an episode satirizing Kung Fu movies.Tweeting “My race is not a costume,”with the hashtag #HowIMetYourRacism, Park elicited an apology from the show’s co-creator after the controversy was covered by CNN, Time magazine, and Cosmopolitan.

It seems Malkin was watching. Sounding like an activist immersed in cultural theory, Malkin tweeted on Jan. 20, “Great thing about Twitter is that it allows those excluded from official MSM narratives to break down the barriers.”

Then, on Jan. 29, Malkin came into her own as a hashtag activist. MSNBC tweaked the right by tweeting, “Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family. http://on.msnbc.com/1dPgQEU.”

A first responder in fabricating outrage, Malkin linked the Cheerios tweet to an incident a month earlier when an MSNBC panel belittled Mitt Romney’s extended family, which includes an adopted black grandchild. Then Malkin tweeted, “Hey @msnbc jerks: This is #MyRightwingBiracialFamily. We love #cheerios. Enough with your race card crap==> pic.twitter.com/DZikmrD0PK.” The crowds went wild, retweeting the hashtag and accompanying photo of Malkin’s two biracial children more than 500 times.

Two minutes later Malkin exhorted her followers to make it a movement, tweeting “Counter the Left’s evil narrative. Use social media to expose & crush it. Flood @msnbc w/YOUR pics ==> #MyRightWingBiracialFamily.”

As more than 100 photos of right-wing biracial families poured in, Malkin gushed, “Gorgeous!”, “BEAUTIFUL!”, “LOVE!!!” She played empowerment coach and bare-knuckled brawler, tweeting, “‘Rightwing’ families responded to @msnbc w/love, pride & joy. This, ultimately, is how we will end poisonous, libelous race-card smears.” Her fans played victims of a bigoted liberal media and basked in the Instagram glow of diversity, family and tolerance.

Twitchy, a Twitter aggregation and curation website founded by Malkin in March 2012 (and sold to a Christian media company last December), churned out posts to keep the outrage fresh. The next day, Jan. 30, Twitchy crowed, “Michelle Malkin leads crushing social media win against MSNBC smear,” after the news network apologized and reportedly fired the tweeter responsible.

What’s this have to do with Suey Park? Well, on Jan. 30, Park weighed in on a Twitter discussion that included Malkin. After Park derided another woman as “hysterical,” “unreasonable,” and “immature,” she declared Malkin was “reasonable.”

Why would Park call Malkin reasonable given her noxious politics?

Perhaps Park was enthused by Malkin’s victorious hashtag campaign that mimicked her own, celebrating diversity against racist media depictions. Given the fact they were familiar with each other, it’s distinctly possible they were talking in the internet’s dark alleys, and Malkin was trying to convince Park they had the same enemy. Park’s fixation on the digital world over the material may have led her to conclude that Twitter Malkin was reasonable.

On March 17, Park published a hashtag manifesto with her frequent collaborator, Eunsong Kim, a PhD candidate in literature. The two imagine Twitter as the new vanguard party uniting revolutionaries. Twitter is subversive, a tool to “defy the limitations of time and space,” a means to build intentional communities, and “part of a collective struggle … to end capitalism and abandon the replication of oppressive exclusionary tactics within ethnic confines.” This reveals a disconnect with reality. That the revolution is riding in on a $25 billion company gentrifying a patch of earth called the Bay Area and displacing people of color in the process goes unmentioned in the manifesto. If you can think Twitter is making a revolution possible, then you can believe Malkin is on your side.

A few days later, on Feb. 2, Park smacked “Saturday Night Live” with charges of yellowface. Her complaints were retweeted only by a few dozen people, but Jeff Yang, whom one source said was a mentor of Park, criticized SNL as well in his Wall Street Journal column and linked it to the “How I Met Your Mother” episode.

In neither episode did Park raise the issue of liberal racism. Certainly Colbert, with his bloviating right-wing alter ego, delights liberals and displeases conservatives. But one can easily make the argument that Park’s initial campaigns exposed the racism of liberal Hollywood as well. It was with #CancelColbert that liberal racism suddenly became Park’s target.

THE STORM

The supercells of Park and Malkin collided the night of Thursday, March 27, 2014, generating a perfect media storm. Park fired off at least three tweets in four minutes. The first was a “Fuck you” Colbert. The second was the infamous “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation,” which was retweeted a respectable 144 times, a mild breeze compared to a Twittersphere hurricane like Justin Bieber, whose feckless grunts are retweeted 100,000 times or more. In the third tweet, Park accused white liberals of being “just as complicit in making Asian Americans into punchlines.” Presumably she meant as complicit as conservatives.

In the next two hours, Park rained directives, exhortations, jargon, and rebukes on her followers while skirmishing with others on the side. Park was Asian-America: “there are 19 million of us,” “We are waiting for an apology and explanation,” and “we aren’t amused.”

Park commanded, “White people–please keep #CancelColbert trending until there’s an apology. This is NOT the burden of people of color. Fix it. Do something,” ordered those who aren’t “structurally subordinated [to] please shut up and help #CancelColbert,” and sneered, “Still waiting for white allies to make themselves useful, but they probably enjoy the show too much.” (She changed her opinion about the utility of white people the following week, telling Salon, “I don’t want them on our side.”)

Park later claimed #CancelColbert was a provocative way to expose liberal racism, but that night she chided, “White people … I know y’all are used to having structural power, but losing one show isn’t oppression #CancelColbert.” Additionally, the headline for her and Eunsong Kim’s article for Time magazine read, “We Want to #CancelColbert.”

An hour into the campaign, at 8:52 p.m., Twitchy swung into action. In February, I felt the heat from a Twitchy-led mob, including a thinly veiled death threat, after sarcastically tweeting that Republicans were guilty of economic terrorism by threatening to cut aid to a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee if workers there unionized. But for #CancelColbert, Twitchy became as earnest as an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, curating Tweets about racist “othering,” transphobia, fat shaming, cis privilege, bullying, and triggering. Garnering more than 1,200 mentions on Facebook and Twitter, the Twitchy post praised Park’s persistence, framed the issue as one of liberal racism, and noted the campaign was going viral fast.

MALKIN IT FOR ALL IT’S WORTH

At 9:34 p.m. Park announced the first victory. The Colbert Report deleted the original offending tweet that had gone out at 6:02 p.m.: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Malkin piled on seven minutes later by tweeting, “Coward just deleted the tweet!” She also referred to the tweet from Twitchy the previous hour.

By 9:44 p.m. the tweets were flying furiously. Park tweeted, “I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin retweeted it instantly, “Co-sign! RT @suey_park I’m sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’ #CancelColbert.” Malkin was retweeted 152 times, nosing past the first Cancel Colbert tweet.

Also at 9:44 p.m. Malkin tweeted at Park, “@suey_park I know we don’t agree on much, but you are TENACIOUS & I respect that greatly. Hats off to you. #cancelcolbert.” Given their contact in January, the tweets suggest the two had been in communication. At minimum the two were now joined in battle against the specter of liberal racism. Park does not comment on Malkin, but she retweeted or favorited all three of her tweets.

Others alerted Park she was making common cause with someone who commits every political sin Park preaches against. At 9:48 p.m. on March 27, only four minutes after Malkin backed Park, noted anti-racist and feminist blogger Mia McKenzie, aka Black Girl Dangerous, expressed her displeasure, tweeting “@suey_park ew michelle malkin, though? ew.” Park didn’t respond, but she favorited this tweet soon after.

At 9:54 p.m., two hours after #CancelColbert was born, Malkin explained the goal was not to cancel Colbert, it was to “#ExposeColbert & it’s working very effectively. Luv the smell of hypocrisy toast.” Park favorited the tweet.

Cancel Colbert rapidly went stratospheric. At 10:33 p.m. Park tweeted, “Fun! We are the #1 trending hashtag in the US right now … Keep it up! Park’s mood understandably soured a few hours later as Twitter interactions hit 200 per minute, many of them oozing racist and sexist vitriol, including rape and death threats.

The next morning Twitchy published another post defending Park that made it seem as if she and Malkin were united on the issue. At no point did Park publicly distance herself from Malkin, reject her politics, or at least express concern that Malkin’s vicious real-world racism might harm the campaign to address racism in the fictional world. Park’s only comment the night of March 27 to Malkin was to declare, “I’m Christian, too,” at 8:56 p.m.

While Malkin and Twitchy supported Park, Park concluded that Colbert fans were behind the torrent of abuse directed at her. Park tweeted that night to Colbert’s personal account, “Dear @StephenAtHome–your years of satire have failed when your fans send rape/death threats to an asian woman for critiquing your work.” From the Twitter feeds of abusers calling her “chink” and “rice nigger,” nearly all look to be rightwing trolls.

LEFT-RIGHT INTERSECTIONALITY

By March 28, #CancelColbert burned through the media. Park’s article in Time indicated that Cancel Colbert was the goal. But in an interview with The New Yorker the same day, Park sounded like Malkin, saying she didn’t really want to cancel Colbert, despite the hashtag. Park said of Colbert’s sketch, “That sort of racial humor just makes people who hide under the title of progressivism more comfortable.” Malkin completed the Freaky Friday switch, sounding like Park when she tweeted that afternoon, “For all you CLWM’s [clueless white males] lecturing brown & yellow women about how we don’t get the ‘satire’ …”

Park obviously is not responsible for Malkin trying to co-opt her message. But given the number of times she retweets or favorites Malkin, and acknowledges criticism but is silent about it, this suggests she is keeping quiet about Malkin’s politics so as to benefit from her support.

Three anti-racist feminists who have been in touch with Park say “she might be in over her head” in tangoing with Malkin. Juliet Shen, who calls Park a “former friend,” says she was “shocked” to see Malkin and Park “were talking to each other, and in a way supporting each other.” Another source says Malkin “doesn’t support Park, she is just eager to use her to slam liberals.”

Shen thinks Malkin is using Park to “change people’s opinions about her, and in that way help loop Asian-Americans into right-wing politics.” She suggests both Park and Malkin may be “using each other for an opportunity to get more visibility in communities neither of them had a lot of presence in.”

Shen says, “It is confusing to see why Park wouldn’t denounce Malkin of all people,” especially when Park is quick to fling around insults such as “anti-blackness, racism, sexism, homophobia [against]other organizers in the Asian-American community.” She says Park might be afraid “if she did publicly criticize Malkin, she has this huge following that could easily turn on Suey.”

One source who asked Park about Malkin’s support for Cancel Colbert claimed Park expressed her distaste for Malkin but then did not respond when asked if she would repudiate Malkin publicly.

Park’s first comment about Malkin came on March 30. The previous day Jeff Yang slammed #CancelColbert and the limits of Twitter as a social justice tool in the Wall Street Journal. Park broke with Yang that evening, calling him “a gaslighting self-promoting patriarch.” Shen wrote in a blog post that it’s common practice among Park’s followers to accuse others of gaslighting, that is, trying to deliberately twist someone’s memory. At 3:42 a.m. Park tweeted at Yang, “@michellemalkin has been a better friend than you.”

On April 1, Malkin threw down in support of Park, making no bones of her intention to use Park to sanitize right-wing racism.
“Question: Who are the most prominent, public purveyors of Asian stereotypes and ethnic language-mocking in America?
“The right answer is liberal Hollywood and Democrats.
“The wrong and slanderous answer is conservatives…”

After denigrating Colbert as an “illegal alien amnesty lobbyist,” Malkin applauded Park for leading a group of “diehard liberals” to “tenaciously” question Colbert and his defenders as “race-baiting liberals who hid behind their self-professed progressivism.” Malkin also took the opportunity to bash Muslims and defend her internment book.

Finally on April 1 Park offered some ambiguous criticism, tweeting, “Michelle Malkin cosigning my work means my message sucks, but white supremacists threatening rape cosigning Angry Asian Man means…what?”

DIGITAL DESTRUCTION

Just as Park has shied away from criticizing a demagogue who boosted her, Park’s defenders have ignored how she and her supporters engage in abusive behavior, outrageous claims, and odious alliances. This is not equivalent to the threats of violence directed at Park, who has shown real courage to face down internet predators.

But Park and her followers use the digital medium as a cudgel to silence opposition and to erase histories, which serves to promote her brand. Park says the revolution involves building bridges “across difference in our Twitter neighborhoods” to understand “how slavery, genocide, and orientalism are the three pillars of white supremacy.” Twitter’s 140-character limit, however, also selects for cliques that build gated ideologies out of code words. The medium is hostile to analyzing the quality of an idea, the logic of an argument, or the nuance of history.

If you are an ally, your social genotype takes precedence as long as you can correctly assemble the jargon: decolonial, intersectional, queer, anti-racist, imperial timelines, trans, white supremacy, heteropatriarchical. If you are a critic, which is a polite term for enemy, then your phenotype is all that matters.

Thus, if you are an Asian-American man Park disagrees with, that’s because “Asian men [throw] women of color under the bus.” If you are an Asian woman critic, you sound like “a white feminist.” If you are a white feminist, that really means “White (Supremacy) Feminism.” And if you are a hetero cis white male, nothing more needs be said.

There is no institutional memory on Twitter, just a stream of directives and pronouncements that wash away the past. If Twitter is the revolution, then Park can actually believe “my tweet” of #NotYourAsianSidekick was “the point of origin for Asian American feminism.” That’s right. Suey Park invented Asian-American feminism. Additionally, Park can simultaneously speak for 19 million Asian Americans, tell them to “decenter” their identity, and berate them for “gaslighting,” “sidekicking” whites, and ignoring their internalized racism.

Her enablers include the swarm of leftists on Twitter so intoxicated by identity politic buzzwords they couldn’t walk the line between defending someone against vile threats, and challenging the conduct and ideas of Park and her supporters. The media is even more complicit as it made her into a national figure, but is so incurious about Asian-America that Park can act as its voice and the founder of Asian-American feminism without raising an eyebrow.

Then there’s the matter of how #CancelColbert “Drowned out the Native Voice,” as Indian Country Today Media Network bluntly stated. Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler criticized Park for shifting discussion away from the Redskins name, and for not promoting hashtags to protest racist sports team names. Keeler claims, “We kept Suey Park in the loop regarding our hashtag #Not4Sale, she was just not moved to act on it.” Native activist Jennie Stockle, who works with Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, wrote: “… like a tornado, Suey Park’s tweet calling to cancel Colbert Report came through and pushed all of our efforts into a storm shelter.”

Park admitted the adverse effect of #CancelColbert the next day, “The almighty@andrea366 has reminded me of an important point–can’t ignore anti-Native racism–let’s address issues simultaneously.”

Ironically, Park is right that digital lives do bleed into reality, just as drug traffickers and the IRS alike realize Bitcoin is more than fictitious capital. Park and her allies sparked a national controversy and sent the media all atwitter. They proved a point that Asians are an easy punchline for television comedy, even as their claim Asian-Americans is one monolithic marginalized community is as fictional as the shows they critique.

But in the offline world, says Shen, they’ve “burned bridges, hurt many people in our community, and by throwing buzzwords around they’ve diminished real organizing against sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry.”

Shen adds Park’s appropriation of grand roles and achievements shows a lack of “recognition for those who’ve done so much before us. … This is not the origin for Asian-American feminism. This is one blip in the long timeline of fighting for racial, sexual and gender justice.”

The only one who gained from the dust-up is Colbert with more attention and a show’s worth of material. Park built a national platform out of hashtags, but her standing has likely peaked. After Colbert was tapped for the coveted spot of host on “The Late Show,” Park and Kim took to Time magazine once more to vow they’re not going to stop “until it ends.” It, presumably, is how the “entertainment industry has perfected the development of white, cis, straight, male characters,” and marginalized “other voices.” It’s a worthy goal, but they are trying to empty an ocean with a thimble by using Twitter to change historical consciousness.

Bitcoin paved the way for a slew of digital currencies, and #CancelColbert will inspire others to replicate Park. There will be more hashtag activists inventing history 140 characters at time, erasing allies and achievements, positioning themselves at the head of movements and communities, and influencing national conversations. Lurking in Twitter’s shadows will be other opportunists like Malkin ready to divert that energy for twisted ends. But 140-character harangues in the dark won’t change anything. Real change happens in the real world.

Correction: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the order in which Suey Park and Michelle Malkin were tweeting or retweeting each other in one exchange.

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Forget the Food Industry: Rediscover the Pleasure of Buying, Cooking and Eating Real Food

Junk food may have captured the American palate, but a few simple ingredients and techniques can win it back.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! magazine

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! magazine

By Arun Gupta YES!magazine Winter Issue

As a graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and former chef, I’m obsessed with great food. I can remember the first time I tasted chocolate mousse, pine nuts, and avocados. Years, even decades later, I can recall the succulence of fresh prawns on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and the fiery savoriness of street food in India. All these moments were shared with family or friends, which made them especially memorable. Breaking bread with others is part of what it means to be human, and the act is wrapped up in emotional well-being, especially love.

Some of my most cherished moments include my mom greeting me on Christmas morning with oven-warm chocolate-chip cookies, or learning at her elbow how to make a proper chicken curry, or watching contentment spread across my partner Michelle Fawcett’s face when I whip up her nostalgia food in the form of salmon teriyaki and rice.

But it’s increasingly uncommon for Americans to eat meals home-cooked from scratch. Instead, 19 percent of us eat fast food several times a week and fully 80 percent eat it once a month or more. The food we eat at home is mostly a matter of heating up food from a factory.

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And that’s true even though 76 percent of us say that fast food is unhealthy—testimony to the effect of writers like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser, and Frances Moore Lappé, who have shown how industrial food is laced with toxins, designed to be as addictive as crack, and chock-full of worker exploitation, animal cruelty, and climate change.

So why do we keep eating junk? The conventional wisdom is that we’re all pressed for time and money, and industrial food is quick and cheap. At least when it comes to cost, that’s not necessarily true. Feeding a family of four at McDonald’s can set you back $25. If you went shopping and cooked at home you could feed four people a hearty, healthy meal at half the price.

And time is not really a problem. Americans on average watch television five hours a day, plus surf the web, play with smart phones, and update Facebook. And if you eat out, not only is it much more expensive than cooking at home, it’s just as time-consuming.

The real issue is pleasure. The food industry spends billions a year on gleaming research centers staffed with white-coated scientists who concoct foods that electrify our brains like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Their tricks range from the simple—add bacon and cheese to everything—to the sophisticated: U.S. Army scientists discovered years ago that we prefer flavor medleys, which is why colas, which are symphonies for the mouth, far outsell one-note orange sodas. Food science tells corporations precisely how to manipulate our inborn fondness for fat, salt and sugar, smoky flavors, and umami, the savoriness found in foods like mushrooms, aged cheese, meat, and shellfish. If food companies can convince us they’re the only practical source of the pleasures and sensuality of the table, then we’ll be hooked on their products.

The path to modern food

Now, the idea that everyone can eat for pleasure is relatively new. In the past eating for pleasure was the province of the upper crust, who equated it with refined French food. The rest of us had simple country fare, but we worked hard for it and shared it.

The Great Depression and World War II provoked a sea change. Starting in the 1930s, farmers got subsidies and price supports, which boosted production and lowered consumer prices.

Wartime explosives chemistry led to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and quickly made their way into the food chain. Americans welcomed the postwar cornucopia of cheap food. The high-tech field rations that fed the GIs were reengineered by food scientists and hyped by Madison Avenue as the liberators of housewives from scullery work.

Arun and Michelle tasting their work.

Arun and Michelle tasting their work.

 

The price of that freedom was food stripped of flavor and nutrients. By the ’60s, low cost and convenience weren’t enough. This produced a new food revolution heavily influenced by Julia Child’s democratization of sophisticated food in her PBS show, The French Chef, and Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse championing local, seasonal food sourced directly from farmers. At the same time, Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring of the perils of industrial science. The contours of our current food culture took form during the ’70s: the local, organic and artisanal food movements arose, but at the same time fast-food outlets more than quadrupled in number.

Real food, real simple

For those who care about food, it’s a dilemma: We want fare that’s good for us and good for the planet, but we also want bliss on a plate. The good news is we can beat the junk-food engineers at their own game. With a bit of time, fresh ingredients, and a simple tool kit, we can make food that’s tastier and cheaper than commercial food. Home-cooked food is also associated with better health, if for no other reason than that you eat 50 percent more calories and fat when you eat out. The foods we cook at home are more likely to include dishes largely absent from restaurant menus, such as fresh vegetables, salads not buried in meat and cheese, grains, beans, and fruit, which have more nutrients and fewer calories than engineered food. Plus, through the acts of creating and sharing, the pleasure we derive is far greater than bellying up for another round of “unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks” at Olive Garden.

If we saw cooking as rewarding, as a craft, as a way to bring people together, then it would be less of a chore. The first step is to devote care and attention to it. That doesn’t mean spending all night in the kitchen. In fact, the simplest food is often the best.

Next, the responsibility has to be shared. American men pitch in with housework more than ever, but they spend only 17 minutes a day on food prep and cleanup as opposed to 45 minutes for women. Cooking and cleaning for someone close to you forges bonds based on kindness, compassion, and love.

In the late ’90s I interned at New York’s Savoy restaurant, which brought to New York the locavore aesthetic in fine dining the way Waters did in California a generation earlier. Under chef-owner Peter Hoffman I learned the power of simplicity. A few basic principles make cooking much easier.

First, nearly all cuisines are about concentrating flavor. Most start with a base of ingredients that create deep flavor. In French cuisine, the mix is carrot, celery, and onion; in Latin America it’s sweet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro; in North India it’s usually ginger, onions, tomatoes, and fresh-ground spices.

To transform quality ingredients into delicious home-cooked food, all you need is sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper; extra-virgin olive oil and butter; fresh herbs; onions and their relatives; liquid like white wine, chicken stock, and citrus; a little smoked meat; and mushrooms, fresh and dried. Those basics cost about $20, and you can add to the pantry as you go—beans, grains, spices, chile peppers, oils, vinegars, nuts, cheeses, eggs, pickles—but learning the basics opens up a world of possibilities.

Much of cuisine is about balance. So another way to beat the junk-food dealers at their own game is to use these elements of flavor judiciously instead of excessively. Combining those flavors with fresh, seasonal ingredients puts you far ahead of processed food, which has been dead for months or even years. Farmers markets tend to have exceptional ingredients, even more than pricey gourmet supermarkets, but a good greengrocer or ethnic market can be a treasure mine of inexpensive quality fruits and vegetables.

Road test

Last summer I decided to put these concepts to the test. I was planning to take a month to drive from New York City to Portland, Ore., stopping and spending time with friends along the way. It was an opportunity to visit different farmers markets, pick from their abundant offerings, and cook it all up as the weeks ticked off and the harvest progressed.

My first stop was near Ithaca, N.Y., to visit Michael Burns and Kelly Dietz, who help run the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute at their 38-acre homestead. Their pastured chickens spend their days outside, scratching the ground for seeds, insects, and plants and lay eggs with marvelous sunset orange yolks. Scrambled with butter, adding only salt and minced chives, they’re incomparable to any other eggs I’ve ever had. From the nearby Farmer Ground Flour, I purchased polenta ground from heirloom corn that I cooked with butter, extra-virgin olive oil, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Served with sautéed mushrooms and squash from the garden it was a perfect meal.

Next was a farmers market dinner in Chicago at the home of Peter Holderness and Jinah Kim. I roasted a pastured chicken from TJ’s Free Range Poultry with slices of lemon and garlic, made brioche bread and served it toasted with gorgonzola and fig jam, assembled a kale salad, pan-roasted forest mushrooms with thyme, shallots, butter, and white wine and tossed them with handmade pasta. Dessert was a fresh peach-raspberry cobbler dusted with sugar, fresh-ground cinnamon and a crumble topping.

Everything was purchased and cooked the same day. I was striving for simplicity, apart from one complex course: a carefully constructed tower of slices of oven-dried and fresh heirloom tomatoes over roasted poblano chiles draped on a chunky black-bean mash in cilantro “water” made by pureeing the herb and straining it through cheesecloth, and garnished with avocados, tomatillos, and black-eyed peas. The recipe was from Chicago’s Charlie Trotter, and a demonstration that vegan food can be elegant and sublime. That night carnivores and herbivores alike declared this dish to be their favorite.

Finally, the Portland dinner in August showcased the outrageous bounty of the Pacific Northwest. I shopped at the Saturday market at Portland State University, which has more than 150 vendors. Unlike many farmers markets, there are few prepared food stalls and no crafts, so there is a tremendous selection of raw and artisanal foods to choose from.

Truth be told, I went wild. Being able to talk to vendors about their products, how they are produced, and ideas for preparation unleashed my imagination.

Simon Sampson, who’s been running a boat on the Yakima and Columbia rivers since 1976, sold me a chunk of salmon and salmon roe “caught the night before.” Erik Olson, manager of Pono Farm, described the Berkshire/Red Wattle-cross hogs he raises, showing off a ruby-red tenderloin. Nearby, Liz Alviz of the two-year-old Portland Creamery suggested I serve peaches with her goat cheese, drizzled with goat-milk caramel. It sounded like an ideal companion to pork.

I spent hours talking to vendors, sampling wares, gathering ideas, and choosing the best ingredients. I picked up a bushel of fruit and produce, as well as blue cheese and butter from Jacobs Creamery, a 5-year-old business run by law-school dropout Lisa Jacobs.

Dinner was in the garden of the home of Anne and Chris Prescott. I met them through Tom Kiessling, a friend from New York who happens to be a food scientist. Juan Ordoñez, a buddy from college, joined us.

Michelle and I spent about six hours making a feast. There was cubed watermelon and heirloom tomatoes with crumbled feta and mint; potato latkes crowned with salmon caviar, sour cream, and chives; kale massaged with salt and tossed with green apples, blue cheese, red onions, currants, and sunflower seeds; multicolored carrots roasted with cardamom; mushrooms sautéed with garlic, shallots, olive oil, and thyme and finished with a little chicken stock, mushroom powder, and butter; Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon; a berry-peach cobbler with crème Chantilly.

The salmon needed only a brief sauté; a beet-yogurt salad cut its richness. Silky cod and poached clams melded with potatoes and mushrooms like a pine forest rolling down to the sea. The clarity of the pork resonated with a Chinese five-spice rub in a symphony with the peaches, goat cheese, and caramel. Tartly sweet pie, mounded with five pounds of Granny Smith apples, formed a straw-colored hill of tender flaky crust.

In all, we pulled off a grandiose, 11-course meal in one day for about $25 a head with just the tool kit of basic ingredients, a few added herbs and spices, and no fancy kitchen tools. As the evening wound down, Chris, slumped in a chair, said, “I’ll remember this dinner for the rest of my life.”

To be fair, no one can cook, or would want to eat, like this regularly. There were nearly three separate meals in one. But it would be easy for a couple of people to whip up a few of these dishes in an hour of prep work for less than half the cost. I limited expenses to what a meal might cost at a popular chain like Applebee’s, although you wouldn’t get 11 courses of fresh-off-the-farm food there.

Changing food culture

It is true that artisanal products cost more than industrial foods. That’s because they don’t dump costs on the rest of society like agribusiness does through pesticides, animal waste, and ill health—and they don’t get the subsidies that make industrial food so cheap.

There are some policy moves in the right direction. Kinga, a guest at the Chicago dinner, had gone to the farmers market earlier that same day. There, her food stamps were doubled, as part of a program in Illinois and other states to provide low-income households with more access to healthy food. Cutting the price in half makes local food from small farmers competitive with industrial food.

Farmers markets are spreading as well—there are more than 8,100 nationwide, nearly triple the number in 2000. In 2008, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 107,000 farms sold $4.8 billion worth of products, with less than 20 percent of sales taking place at farmers markets. But the market for local food is dominated by 5,300 large producers that account for 70 percent of all local food sales and outsell small vendors by a factor of 98 to one.

Eric Holt-Giménez, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, says that we don’t pay for the “real cost” of food, and to do so, “We need a social wage, need a living wage.” The next phase of the food movement has to be changing “the institutions and the rules of the food system by building a strong food movement in order to force these reforms onto the government,” Holt-Giménez says. Organizing for social solutions like new farmers markets, food co-ops, and farm-to-school programs will allow us to think bigger and tackle national solutions—like using our tax dollars to subsidize small producers and community-supported agriculture instead of funding industrial corn and feedlots crammed with 50,000 cattle.

Ultimately food is about the bonds we create. In Chicago, Kinga declared she hated mushrooms, but her distaste was no match for the earthy-meaty aroma of frying creminis and portabellas. When pasta buried in mushrooms hit the table, she dug in and exclaimed that not only did she like them, but she couldn’t wait to tell her family she ate mushrooms willingly. In the Finger Lakes, Kelly and Michael were intrigued at how I slowly scrambled eggs over low heat with the butter thrown in cold. “Wow,” was their reaction upon tasting it. While they introduced me to pastured eggs, I showed them how a simple technique could coax out the eggs’ flavor with ingredients readily at hand. In both instances we created a shared experience that in the future we’ll talk and laugh and think about.

It’s why I believe good food should be a right. Eating great-tasting food regularly makes you realize processed food hits our pocketbooks hard but shortchanges us on pleasure. The best way to build a popular movement is not by being scolds, but by being fun and exciting. And we can do that by starting a food revolution that meets people where they eat.

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Charlie Trotter’s Complicated Legacy

As we mourn a great chef, we shouldn’t sugarcoat the way he treated workers.

Charlie Trotter. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Charlie Trotter. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

by Arun Gupta In These Times November 8, 2013

I met Charlie Trotter once, when he popped by the French Culinary Institute for an impromptu demonstration when I was a student there. It was 1996, and Trotter was rising fast in the pantheon of chefs. From the head of a kitchen classroom he fielded questions and described the harmony of flavors and textures he was creating as he carved cucumber cups, stuffed them with julienned apples, plunked them in a bowl of cucumber “water” shimmering with dill oil, and garnished them with jewel-cut melon, jicama and avocado.

He was only in his 30s, but it was classic Trotter: riffing on culinary standards with modern flavor notes and unconventional arrangements. It also represented the paradoxical nature of Trotter, who died on Tuesday in his Chicago home at age 54.

He was a self-taught chef appearing before students forking over dough to learn how to cook. He was in the domain of French food, but his palette of vegetable and fruit reductions, extractions and oils ran counter to the meat/butter/stock building blocks of haute cuisine. He melded imagination and refinement with hospitality and elegance, collecting awards for best chef and best restaurant in the nation at his peak, but was by most accounts a tyrant in the kitchen.

I got a taste of his anger when I asked him if he thought the flavor of wild salmon was superior to farmed. Smiling, he said there was no discernible difference. Surprised, I asked again, and his bonhomie evaporated. His eyes locked on me, his face scrunched slightly. “None,” he spat out.

It did not diminish my admiration for Trotter. His stellar cuisine was approachable for home chefs—an impossibility today, given the industrial laboratory required for modernist food. It did take a properly equipped kitchen and knowledge of basic techniques, but a passion for detail and precision mattered above all else. In my Manhattan tenement kitchen, I’ve recreated many of his dishes that soared with flavor, and a few that looked worthy of his sumptuously photographed cookbooks.

But as much as I idolized Trotter, I would not have wanted to work at his eponymous Chicago restaurant. Stories of his temper flowed freely, and he lapped it up, expressing irritation one year that he had been beat out by Michael Jordan for the number one spot on Chicago Magazine’s list of the meanest people in the city. One chef who interned with him told me of times when Trotter reduced grown cooks to tears or paralyzed them with fear.

That’s why allusions to Shakespearean tragedy keep bubbling up through the praise being heaped on Trotter since his death. One writer wonders whether “the same mysterious edge that made Charlie Trotter a genius also ended up killing him.”

Duh.

As hard as he drove his cooks, who worked 70-80 hour weeks, scrubbed their own pots and sometimes snuck produce home to prep it before the next day’s madness, Trotter was hardest on himself. In the end, his family told the Associated Press, Trotter was taking medication for seizures, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He still had steely determination, but his gymnast build had grown bloated. The weekend before his death, he reportedly defied orders from his doctor against boarding a plane to attend a culinary conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

But rather than pore over flaws that paled next to Trotter’s virtuosity, it’s time to admit that the real culprit is a restaurant culture that dishes out abuse. Michelin-starred chefs are often known for their prowess in screaming as much as for their cuisine. Few underlings will openly admit it, lest crossing a celebrity chef consign them to also-ran kitchens, but get a few seasoned cooks together and they’ll swap accounts of star chefs who hurl insults, torment weaklings, throw pots, or perhaps even a punch. As Donald Trump is to real estate, Gordon Ramsay is to the kitchen, building his public persona on being a flaming asshole.

During my brief forays into professional kitchens, I was challenged to a fistfight, worked with a line cook who broke someone’s jaw, and was told about a famed chef who would throw spice into the eyes of hung-over waiters during brunch service. While the stories are entertaining, they also suggest that many chefs believe that high pressure and hard work excuse bad behavior.

Charlie Trotter’s tragedy is that his life was both a testament to and indictment of the restaurant industry. He has an outsized legacy in the chefs he mentored, the Chicago dining scene that he made world-class, and the cuisine he crafted, which defied convention while delighting the senses. But tributes to his work would be elevated by acknowledging that great food shouldn’t be accompanied by abusive working conditions.

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Actually, Satya Nadella’s selection as Microsoft CEO isn’t great for Indians

When Indians glow like a proud parent at a new CEO or billionaire, they reject millions who suffer for that wealth.

Satya Nadella. Photograph: Microsoft/Reuters

Satya Nadella. Photograph: Microsoft/Reuters

by Arun Gupta The Guardian February 5, 2014

Growing up near Washington DC, in the 1970s, one of my few pop cultural references for an Indian was Johnny Quest’s Hadji: “a well-spoken … orphan who picked up his smarts on the streets of Calcutta.” It was embarassing, like the urine-drinking Indian prime minister, or the teacher who explained to my classmates that the reason I was tardy in returning from a trip to India was because I “may have gotten married” at the ripe age of 10.

Indians take pride when one of their own scales the pinnacles of western success – Pulitzer Prizes, Miss America, governorships and business titans – partly because they are prickly about being viewed as the monkey-brain-eating other. Individual success is proof of the nation’s collective intellect, work ethic and merit.

The selection of Satya Nadella as the new CEO of Microsoft is one such moment. Hyderabad-born, Indian-educated, cricket-lover, Nadella is pure Desi, bringing the essence of thousands of years of culture to cutting-edge technology. The reaction back home was ecstatic. The Hindustan Times crowed, “India raises toast as Satya Nadella named Microsoft top boss.” Infosys CEO Narayana Murthy declared, “This is how India’s brand will be enhanced.” One analyst touted Nadella as an example for all Indians to put aside their “caste, religion and regional” differences and “start helping one another”.

For Indians who do raise a glass of the national drink, Johnny Walker Black, to Nadella, they’re not affirming a shared achievement. They’re affirming their status in America’s winner-take-all system. Their definition of success is limited to business executives, Hollywood stars, US attorneys, television physicians, and White House officials.

This empty boosterism is often tinged by a chauvinism as crude as any Tea Party reactionary. Many Indian-Americans praise Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana solely for his heritage. If they paid attention to his policies he might have acquired the sobriquet of “Gunga Jindal” for seemingly changing his name and religion as part of his effort to pander to racists.

Ethnic pride also tends to be marked by childlike cravings for normalcy to mask shame. Each success is another sign India’s greatness will erase images of a land of female infanticide, ethnic cleansing, gang rapes and slave labor.

Now, what would be an accomplishment for these Indians is to mature beyond such dubious conceits. For one, what is there to celebrate in Microsoft? Many see it as a company with mediocre products wedded to Robber Baron monopoly practices headed by a billionaire whose pastimes include destroying public education from Kindergarten through college and bankrolling apocalyptic geoengineering schemes.

More significant, few of the 140 million Indians who lack clean water or the 400 million who live on less than $40 a month will toast Nadella. They are not indifferent to his success. They pay for it in homes bulldozed, waters stolen and land fouled by proliferating IT campuses and gated communities.

Exalting Nadella conflates the few with the nation. It’s similar to the nationalist orgy after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1998. Arundhati Roy wrote at the time, “The bomb is India. India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu.”

Her critique exposed the double-edged sword of ethnic pride. After writing The God of Small Things, “beaming” Indians would stop Roy and declare, “You have made India proud,” referring not to her novel that digs into India’s afflictions of caste, class and gender violence, but to her receipt of England’s Booker Prize. But that pride curdled. Her loyalty, background, and Indianness were questioned after she tallied that the embrace of nuclear weapons, “the most diabolical creation of western science,” cost India freedom and imagination for fear and insecurity.

Since then nuclear terror has been superseded by India’s embrace of the free market and the digital revolution. It’s created 65 billionaires, but the cost is being borne by the still majority agrarian population who are being pushed off ancestral land for factories, mines and dams. So when Indians glow like a proud parent at a new CEO or billionaire of their own, they are rejecting millions who suffer for that wealth. If Indians want their own to venerate, they should look to those like Roy who embody the best of their heritage, the thirst for universal ideals and justice.

In the United States, there’s Kshama Sawant, the new city councilmember in Seattle, around the corner from Microsoft’s home, who’s reviving socialism in a country floundering in capitalism. Or Bhairavi Desai, the unlikely organizer of tens of thousands of New York City cabdrivers. Or immigrant-rights organizer Harsha Walia in Canada.

In fact, there is an astonishing number of South Asians in North America whose activism is inspired by the vast tableau of social justice struggles in their home countries and communities. They are working across cultures, languages and communities for a better world, and are far more deserving of their compatriots’ attention than some head of a corporate behemoth.

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Moshed in the Pit of Capitalism

by Arun Gupta, truth-out.org, op-ed, June 16, 2013

Delighted attendee Gupta opines that while the Coachella music and arts festival “may be the zenith of hipster culture” – with extraordinary food choices, music, flamboyancy and release, drugs and friendliness – “It’s all Walmart economy.”

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Within 20 minutes I had been clocked in the face, pummeled by flying bodies and stripped of clothing. It was the best mosh pit of the day, and I wanted more. Hundreds thick of body or reckless by nature were circulating in a blender of whirling arms and legs propelled by the freneticism of The Descendents. It was exhilarating not knowing if I would be the bat or ball next. There was little risk of death or injury that led the Smashing Pumpkins and Fugazi to ban moshing at their concerts. When I fell down, hands pulled me up, backslaps were exchanged, and the good times rolled.

Bill, my companion at Coachella, remarked as another surfer was catapulted on top of the crowd, “It’s a great way to let out your social aggression.” I grinned in agreement as we dove into a wave of slam dancers surging and crashing.

After scoring a free ticket to the three-day Southern California music-and-arts festival, I cruised to the desert town of Indio with scant knowledge of the 175 acts rotating through eight venues, hoping I wouldn’t be bored. As I entered the 2.4 million-square-foot polo grounds, my anxiety vanished because it was an ADD delight. I wandered from one act to the next, people-watched, self-medicated, and tripped out on colossal mechanical insects and wind-sculpted balloon chains painting the sky.

Star power like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave attracted a record 90,000 pilgrims each of two weekends in April, but the real draw was the crowd itself. In the digital age, unlimited music is on tap anytime, anywhere, and music-discovery services have reduced the search for the new from prowling obscure clubs and rifling stacks of unknown albums to opening a browser. It’s the shared live experience and the chance to star in your own social media firmament – by posting obsessively to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr – that’s elevated Coachella to the Superbowl of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

It’s revived the music-festival genre, along with events like Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo, for fans who treat concerts like iPods, shuffling from one act and genre to the next. Today’s festivals are far removed from the first rock concerts of the ’60s that were “beachheads of a new, ecstatic culture meant to replace the old repressive one,” notes Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets.

Now in its 15th year, Coachella is the highest-grossing festival in the world. For the region it’s a quarter-billion-dollar revenue generator, which outstrips Jamaica’s GDP on an annual basis. Tickets run up to $800, luxury Safari tents top out at $6,500, and everything costs: parking, water, showers, even charging phones. The dominant tribe is money-flush youth with the will to endure three sleepless days of being mashed in a delicious sound taco of Indie rock.

But Coachella is also the modern incarnation of medieval carnivals that revealed “another way of life that stood in stark contrast to the austerity and fixed hierarchy of the official order,” notes Al Sandine in The Taming of the American Crowd. We may imagine festivals like the original May Day, that celebrated the return of spring, to be as timeless as nature, but they are inventions, like Labor Day, Independence Day and Armistice Day.

Late 18th century French revolutionaries “invented a series of public events intended to furnish the novel and exciting world that had fallen into their hands with a revolutionary culture,” writes Sandine. These were solemn affairs with “maidens dressed in white” and ceremonies “marking brotherhood between rival villages,” but the desire for carnival could not be suppressed. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the orderly military parade in Paris turned into a days-long celebration with “parties, dances and parodies.” In the town of Saint-Andéol, Sandine quotes a contemporary describing a “love-feast,” where ” ‘wine flowed in the streets, the tables were spread, provisions placed in common,’ and people joined hands in an enormous dance extending outward ‘into the fields [and] across the mountains.’ ”

Libidinous festivals still exist in the global south, such as Rio’s Carnival and India’s Holi. Our public parties, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, are associated with frat-boy culture or are sanitized like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Libertine exceptions remain, such as Mardi Gras, Pride and Burning Man, but they have survived by adapting to the market. Radical noncorporate celebrations such as Rainbow Gatherings and Critical Mass tend to be squashed.

Because unplanned festivals are rare, they can be wildly popular. Tens of thousands joined Occupy Wall Street as it was a spontaneous outburst of history and living theater. Democratic, free, participatory, dangerous, unpredictable and open to all, Occupy was unlike the gated festivals that have colonized public space with pacified crowds.

While the elite used to fear the frenzy of the crowd, mega-festivals profit from assimilating the defiance and aggression of rock music. Coachella has successfully enclosed the ancient dance of joy and aggression around a bonfire. Bottling youthful rebellion draws devotees from Sydney, London, Tijuana and Hollywood for nostalgia and novelty, eros and excess. And it’s filling a primal need for mass, spontaneous revelry that’s largely disappeared from America.

Rob, 24, an expressionist artist who jetted in from New Zealand, said, “It’s the best music festival in the world.” Jane, a schoolteacher from Burbank had been dying to attend because her friends deemed it “epic.” “Was it epic?” I asked. “It was epic,” she replied with a delirious grin. “Teddy Bear,” a 20-something bro outfitted in more digital media than clothing, wondered how to optimally balance his intake of Acid, Mollies, and Sassafras with alcohol.

Cynics sneer at the vapid self-indulgence. Desperate-to-be-cool attendees gush about fake bands. Lindsay Lohan delayed her court-ordered rehab to after the festival, a smart move for the Adderall and Xanax-popping train wreck as drugs are cheaper and easier to score than food. There’s little nostalgia for rock’s muddy, tie-dye, bad-trip roots. Today’s hippie chicks buy fake flower headbands; music stars outsource their beats; and the 40,000 campers herded into the tent Serengeti eye the air-conditioned VIP quarters with envy.

But criticizing the base desire misses the point. Excess is the goal, and everyone is participant and spectator in the swirl of drugs, performance, fashion, art and above all, flesh. It could overwhelm, like the two sweaty groundskeepers who stood frozen with beer in hands as a flood of pecs and boobs, abs and butts coursed around them. One of the most popular spots was where the water guns were spraying overheated crowds dancing to DJ sets behind the motor-home-sized psychedelic snail oozing a foamy mucilaginous trail. Under the cooling jets, hundreds gyrated in slippery polyamorous frottage like wriggling spermatozoa building to a crescendo.

Without sex and drugs, attendance would probably dwindle to that of a minor-league baseball game. But there’s more to it than that. By feeding the need for human connection, Coachella’s revived the festival scene. The promise of an interconnected world on demand has turned out to be two-dimensional and alienating. Iron-fisted policing has scared most Americans away from political crowds. Shared intimacy is elusive – even though every form is on sale from baby making to funeral mourning. That leaves bars, shopping and sports, all of which lack genuine community.

Coachella is so immersive, it feels like its own universe, which makes it hard to imagine another way of life beyond its utopian consumerism, sustained by austerity. We were all atomized consumers whizzing in a giant particle accelerator to explosive energies, unable to escape the electromagnetic spectacle. If Coachella is a universe, the dark energy holding it together is the free market.

There’s little space for politics. Reggae and dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry chanted, “I am a Black Man” and “Burn IMF.” Flea declared, “We don’t like guns, and we don’t like drones,” and the Sparks crooned the biting crowd-mocker, “I am a Suburban Homeboy.” The words felt out of place because political music is a product of social struggle by the poor, peasants and workers, not West LA stoners.

Moments did defy cynicism. For her finale, a white-clad Janelle Monáe paddled across a sea of hands. She hypnotically drew us in with our eyes and hands reaching skyward to form the surf to buoy her. After Monáe passed overheard, not before timidly clasping my left hand – which I eventually washed – the crowd returned to earth. With faces aglow, we hungered to share the joy. But the fire dimmed when I caught the eye of a stranger rather than a friend. Like a good drug it was transcendent, but not transformative. Collectively we created a fond memory, but we couldn’t connect to each other.

Coachella may be the zenith of hipster culture – food choices included Kogi BBQ, wood-fired pizza, espresso bars and a farmer’s market – but it’s all Walmart economy. Its sustainability program encourages carpooling, not to save the planet, but to help it pare parking and personnel costs. It extracts unpaid labor from concertgoers by providing a free bottle of water for every 10 empties turned in. The youth who worked the water stands pleaded for tips, explaining they were unpaid, apart from free admission. Two leathernecks from Camp Pendleton, who had ditched their security guard posts, also claimed they were unpaid, with their Marine Corps battalion receiving their wages. Other guards said they were paid less than $10 an hour to work fully clothed in 100-degree weather and dust and pollen so intense that many people acquired “Coachella cough.”

Coachella Valley is one of the “poorest, densest areas” in the country, with farmworker families contending with “arsenic-tainted water, frequent blackouts and raw sewage that backs up into the shower.” Latinos at the festival were more likely to be low-wage manual laborers than well-heeled partiers at the Rose Garden bar. The workers are hired through layers of subcontractors, notorious for skimping on benefits while violating labor rights.

On Monday, a few dozen workers cleaned one of the vast fields that had corralled tens of thousands of partiers. Ron, a security guard who works the festival circuit, gave me a glimpse of the underbelly. He indicated the official attitude toward drug use was “I know nothing!” While festival workers diligently advised, “Make sure to stay hydrated,” there was no attempt to curb the pervasive and open drug use. Ron claimed one camper, arrested after stabbing a man in the groin and neck after finding him with his girlfriend in his tent, was found with 5,000 doses of ecstasy to sell. “What about sexual assaults?” I asked. “That’s not a problem,” Ron said. “But some of these girls are asking for it.” He paused. “I mean, no one’s asking to get raped, but have you seen the way they dress?” Security’s main concern was jumpers hurdling fences to get in for free and busting rings peddling counterfeit wristbands. Ron said violence was minimal compared to Stagecoach, the country music festival the following week. He explained many guys would get hammered drinking all day and then “wail on each other.” Unlike Coachella, Stagecoach’s web site is blaring with warnings about excess drinking, violence and public sex.

At that point, Ron’s partner dragged him away. A backhoe had struck a water main and a geyser was turning the road into a lake. A gaggle of workers exited the cleaned field; the only remaining evidence of Coachella was rows of thousands of square patches of grass yellowed by tents. The workers grabbed a patch of shade, and each one foraged through a clear plastic bag, examining hauls of T-shirts left behind. After a few minutes they were rounded up to clear the next field. One worker was absorbed in examining his stash – nearly as big as himself. He looked up, grabbed his bag and struggled to run after his crew as they disappeared in the distance.

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