The Riff - June 2009

Your Intifada: Now Made in China!

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 1:34 PM PDT

Oh, the keffiyeh hipster trend. How long have I waited, in vain, for you to die? Once upon a time, the keffiyeh (spelled many ways but worn only one) was headdress for PLO leader Yasser Arafat and symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Now, thanks to a late aughts explosion of popularity, the symbol of intifada is second only to the Che t-shirt for its global ubiquity and collegiate rebel chic. Today, you can buy this fashion juggernaut from half the street vendors on Earth for a cool five bucks. So with all this popularity, why is the the last keffiyeh factory in Palestine about to go out of business?
That's because the one you're wearing (and, increasingly, the ones Palestinians are wearing) are now made in China.
Here's how it happened: Back in '87, during the first intifada, intifadniks couldn't get enough of Palestinian-made $25 scarves. Looser export restrictions meant that Israelis could rep them too, and slowly but surely the scarf and its emblematic pattern began appearing in the West. By the time the second intifada happened in 2000, hardcore activists and the super cool already had them. Then the keffiyeh trend reached its tipping point, and hipsters' insatiable lust for the scarf lured Chinese manufactures into the gig. Fast forward a decade, and Chinese keffiyehs are the norm.
Ironically, global support for Palestinian-statehood-as-fashion-accessory has put yet another nail in the coffin of the Occupied Territories' beleaguered economy. What's next?

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Pray the Devil Back to Hell

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 10:51 AM PDT

Most activists combat current threats to justice, but last Friday, at a private screening in San Francisco, the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell demanded activism by revealing an egregious historic omission: women's central role in the Liberian peace process. The film has been touring festivals since 2008 and has racked up a few awards, including Best Documentary at Tribeca. Its producer, Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Walt, heard about the Women's Peace Initiative in 2006, when she was in Liberia "like a typical American do-gooder who didn't really know much of anything." As it turns out, neither did the rest of the world.

The story goes like this: Since 1980 Liberia had been in and out of brutal civil wars, mainly between the leader of child-soldier battalions, Charles Taylor, elected president in 1995, and rebel groups. As fighting approached Monrovia in 2003, Leymah Gbowee began organizing women in her church and in neighboring Muslim communities to stage a protest. Eventually, there were two thousand women sitting for days outside Taylor's offices, holding signs demanding peace. When Taylor finally agreed to speak with them, Gbowee gave a statement requesting that he immediately engage in peace talks with the rebels. He conceded. Gbowee then sent two delegates to Sierra Leone to convince the Liberian warlords to come to the talks. Skeptical and unimpressed, they agreed.

As a hundred Liberian women sat outside the peace hall in Ghana, war raged back in Liberia. International media picked up on the talks when Sierra Leone indicted Taylor for war crimes. Taylor fled back to Liberia, leaving the warlords to plan a transitional government. The women had been sitting outside every day for six weeks when they got news that the American embassy in Monrovia had been hit by a missile, killing several members of their families. Spurred into action, Gbowee sent for reinforcements, and the women physically blocked the rebel leaders from leaving the hall before making progress.

It worked. In less than two weeks, an interim government was established and war subsided. Charles Jackson, a Liberian journalist who now lives in the U.S. and was in Accra at the time, told me he thinks "without the women, there would have been no peace agreement." Yet no major news networks covering the peace talks or Taylor's indictment showed the women. Because of this, much of the film's 2003 footage came from hand-held cameras used by the women themselves. Disney found one box of film that a local TV channel had abandoned being used to keep open a window at a Ghanian NGO.

Back in 2006, Disney was surprised when the story of these women became more real the deeper she investigated. She expected the narrative to turn out to be false or an exaggeration—that it would "just puff away and disappear." But it didn't—and Pray the Devil, which is concise and stunning to boot, has now made sure that it never will. 

 

Music: Mirrors, Something That Would Never Do

| Fri Jun. 19, 2009 12:56 PM PDT

The cliché goes something like, "Not many people saw the Velvet Underground, but everyone who did, started a band." Count the Mirrors among that select few who fit the cliché.

Formed in 1972 Cleveland, the Mirrors were one of the Ohio bands that—like Electric Eels, Styrenes, and Rocket From the Tombs—creating the embryonic goop that evolved into or influenced some of the best Punk and New Wave bands, ever. (Like Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and Pagans).

The Mirrors wear the Velvets' influence well, with some songs tending to the slower, lo-fi, jangly side—more Loaded-era VU—and others mining arty, experimental depths. While they were around, the Mirrors had a 40-minute freakout jam called "Sweet Sister Ray" which they said was a sequel to VU's "Sister Ray." That one's not included on the album. It's probably a song better experienced live, and possibly best experienced under the influence.

At the same time, early Syd Barret-styled Prog Rock can be heard creeping through some of the songs. It's a less freaked out sound, but still noodles through some killer, exploratory guitar riffs. The Mirrors also nail the basic, essential garage rock pounder.

As disparate as all that sounds, the Mirrors' sound has the singular, syncopated roar of a Ford 355 engine (known as the Cleveland).

Not as bent as the Electric Eels ("I'm So Agitated!”), nor as throttling as Rocket from the Tombs, the band filled a void among the Cleveland pre-punk scene. It's a sound that at the time was slowly crawling up through the cracks of music, as heard in other obscuro-bands like Simply Saucer (Canada), the Twinkeyz (Sacramento), or X_X (featuring former Mirrors members). But it showed up in less obscure bands, too—like the Modern Lovers (led by Jonathan Richman) and Red Krayola.

This 15-song album collects the two Mirrors songs originally released in 1977 as a 7" on Hearthan records, in addition to tracks from the incredible Those Were Different Times compilation of Cleveland pre-punk (Scat Records), and material from the Hands In My Pocket CD (Overground Records). Everything was recorded during the Mirrors brief apex, 1974/75.

Make no mistake, the new, vinyl-only Mirrors reissue on Violet Times is a record nerd’s record: a beautifully packaged, limited, vinyl-only release, by a band time forgot. It shouldn't have to be that way.

Ordering information on the Mirrors' Myspace page, or try your friendly independent record store/mailorder.

"Wife Camp" for Canadian Girls

| Fri Jun. 19, 2009 12:25 PM PDT

Can your ten-year-old daughter talk to diplomats? Hold her own at a cocktail party? Put guests at ease with her easy charm and natural grace?

No?

Sounds like someone is in dire need of manners camp. Macleans ran a story yesterday about a new two-week etiquette camp for ten- to 14-year-old girls in Montreal. The program description from the camp's website:

A unique program designed to offer your child a memorable summer while they develop confidence, social charm and grace, a sense of style and refinement. Participants will learn an array of skills from social etiquette, personal presentation skills, personal grooming and care, choice and co-ordination of attire, reception planning and hosting, to singing and dancing, Students will also be introduced to selected disciplines of music and fine arts (such as painting, and piano). At the end of the event, participants will host a cocktail reception for their parents to celebrate the results of their efforts in a real-life setting.

Understandably, feminists are fuming. (A sociologist interviewed by Macleans quipped, “It might as well be called Wife Camp! Is Betty Draper happy on Mad Men? No! She’s miserable!”)

But camps like this one are nothing new. A Google search for "etiquette camp" turns up a bunch of results, my favorite of which is the Courtesy for Kids camp offered by the North Carolina-based Pinky Toes Party Palace, which includes the ominously named lesson "Eat, Drink, and Be Wary."

But what makes the Montreal one particularly troubling—to me, at least—is the arts thing. Manners, poise, personal presentation—not my idea of summer fun, but all sort of useful skills, I guess. But what, then, are we to make of the painting, piano, and singing components? A Jane-Austen-ish arts-as-party-tricks line of reasoning? Ugh.

The good news: If manners camp isn't your kid's thing, take heart. If she has a special interest, be it Scientology or Ted Nugent, rest assured there's a camp out there for her.

Are You the Worst Driver in America?

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 4:51 PM PDT

That's the question the Travel Channel is taking on the road for its new reality show (and a new low for TV): "America's Worst Driver." You know that saying about not being able to look away from a car crash? Well, now you'll get to watch lots of car crashes. And rewind them, pause, get up and use the bathroom, saunter over to the refrigerator and, yes, flip on the slo-mo—all from the comfort of your home.

A casting call on the Travel Channel's website says that the predictably ill-fated show will "determine which city boasts America's worst driver. Each week a number of bad drivers from a particular city will compete in a series of driving challenges designed to ferret out that city's worst driver." (Whereas, here at Mother Jones, we're all about safe driving—and even hypermiling.) At the end of it all, the winners (or is it the losers?) from New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco will battle it out for the title in what I can only hope is a Demolition Derby-meets-bad-cable-TV showdown.

So, MoJo reader, which city do you think has the worst drivers in America? After a summer spent dodging cabbies, errant tourists, and indifferent New Yorkers in Manhattan, my vote goes to New York.

Film Review: New Muslim Cool

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 11:31 AM PDT

Growing up in a Puerto Rican-American family in a tough section of the Bronx, Jason “Hamza” Perez dreamed he would end up in jail and die young. Now he thinks he was right—sort of. When he meets some local Muslim sheikhs at 21, he converts to Islam and his gangbanger self “dies.” A few years later, he finds himself volunteering at a faith-based initiative program in a local prison. A sensitive and perceptive film, New Muslim Cool chronicles Hamza’s halting evolution from thug to Muslim leader and family man.

We meet Hamza in medias res: A single dad raising two kids, he’s about to get married to a woman he met on a Muslim dating website and move to a community of mostly Latino Muslim converts in Pittsburgh. Director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor deftly constructs a portrait of Hamza learning to build cultural bridges: He cooks “boricua halal” food (traditional Puerto Rican fare made according Muslim dietary code), ministers to teenagers with his hip hop group, the Mujahideen Team, and explains to his skeptical but curious mom why her granddaughter has started wearing a hijab to school.

But the film’s real strength is mixing the political with the domestic: Just as Hamza has learned to move among his own worlds, the outside world gets in the way. And that’s where things really start to get interesting: The police raid the new Pittsburgh mosque—the stated reason is a convicted child molester who worships there, but the community suspects the FBI had been watching them for a while. And later, the prison where Hamza volunteers suddenly revokes his security clearance without explanation (he eventually gets it back). New Muslim Cool shows how Bush-era Islamophobia affected one family’s daily life, but the most remarkable part is watching Hamza and his family take the turmoil in stride. “You know you’re not doing anything wrong,” says Hamza’s wife Rafia. “So you just live your life.”


New Muslim Cool debuts on PBS Tuesday, June 23 at 10 PM, and opens in select theaters nationwide this month.

 

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Even With Steroids, Trading Sammy Sosa Was a Dumb Move by Bush

| Thu Jun. 18, 2009 3:00 AM PDT

The exposé of Sammy Sosa's past steroid use hasn't surprised much of anybody. I lived a few blocks from Wrigley in Chicago during the magical 1998 season and even as a middle schooler I could sense that something was amiss. After Big Mac, BALCO, Clemens, congressional interventions, A-Rod, and Manny, fans and the sports press don't have the energy left to go through the outrage motions with Slammin' Sammy. In Robert Lipsyte's excellent overview of recent sports books he suggests that the sports media take a new approach towards the steroids story:

Meanwhile, it feels like the pin-striped suits are slinking away without the media-mauling they deserve, much less real punishment. Maybe this is the chance for the sports media to make a comeback, avenge the loss, win one when it counts. While it might be hard to mount a war crimes charge against George W. Bush, what about a steroids trial? After all, he was managing partner of the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s when Jose Conseco, the guru and snitch of performance enhancing drugs, played for him and began sharing his needle.

So, George, what did you know and when did you know it?

Funny that Lipsyte should mention Bush's former ownership of the Texas Rangers on the day the Sosa steroids news broke. During the 2000 Republican primaries the candidates were asked what they considered their biggest mistake and Bush somewhat famously answered that his had been to sign off on the 1989 trade of Sammy Sosa from the Texas Rangers to the Chicago White Sox. It was a dumb answer—he did, of course, have a DUI—but it was innocuous enough and may have endeared him to baseball-loving Americans. The 2000 elections, after all, fell right during the height of the Steroid Era; a time when balls were flying out of ballparks, and the game was enjoying an incredible surge in popularity. So while Bush's trade of Sosa looked particularly stupid in 2000, when Sammy was in the midst of a 4-year stretch where he hit an insane 243 homers, a decade of steroid scandals later (including Sammy's own day of reckoning) the trade doesn't look any better.

Why? Because, to owners throughout the majors, the Steroid Era was worth the largely player-focused ignominy that followed. The game enjoys a popularity and profitability today that it never would have without the enhanced exploits of Sammy and Mark McGwire in 1998, Barry Bonds to follow, and so on.

This is precisely Lipsyte's point: owners haven't suffered any consequences for their role in the Steroid Era (other than temporarily losing the services of players suspended for juicing). Steroid use is a stain that falls solely on the players (even as they feel the physical after-effects on their bodies), while the real moneyed interests continue to get off scot-free. 

Way to Go, ProPublica and TPM

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 2:08 PM PDT

Five prominent news organizations announced today that they will team up to create DocumentCloud, a database of primary source documents easily searchable to readers. ProPublica and Talking Points Memo, both online news organizations that specialize in investigative reporting, joined the New York Times as founding members. It's nice to see that quality online investigative journalism is finally receiving the recognition it deserves.

This follows Saturday's announcement that the Associated Press will begin syndicating investigative reporting from four sources, including ProPublica, to its 1,500 member newspapers in July. Is this a sign of the rising prominence of online investigative journalism, or the final death knell of print newspaper reporting?

Video: Mob Rejects Letterman Apology

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:38 PM PDT

An angry mob convened outside the "Late Show" studio Tuesday to demand that CBS "fire David Letterman." In addition to missing a more significant protest about the rape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Palin defenders once again resorted to hate speech to take down a Palin foe. They called Letterman's son, who was born out of wedlock, a "bastard," his wife a "slut" and Letterman himself a "child abuser" and "a verbal pedophile." And this was after Letterman apologized for his joke about Sarah Palin's daughter, saying it was "beyond flawed" and could not be defended.

See the Video:

Over the Rainbow? Redesigning the Gay Flag

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:31 PM PDT

In honor of Gay Pride Month, the folks at WNYC's Studio 360 have suggested that the gay flag needs a makeover. For some reason, they think the rainbow flag, originally designed in 1978, has outlived its ability to turn heads and corrupt the youth of America. So far, the contest's Flickr page has just a handful of entries, like this one, which makes up for its Microsoftastic design with a clever appeal to the universal love of bacon.

 

 

If you've got design skills, you have until June 26th to rebrand gay identity. Extra points if you use the Photoshop clone tool. And, please, nobody tell Shepard Fairey about this.