Hi Folks. No Paper Machete show today.
We’re taking the week off, for a variety of factors, all good. Go throw a ball around or watch Bravo or something.
See you next week!
Hi Folks. No Paper Machete show today.
We’re taking the week off, for a variety of factors, all good. Go throw a ball around or watch Bravo or something.
See you next week!
On August 14, 2010, as the debate over construction of the Cordoba House in lower Manhattan filled the airwaves, Ali Weiss read the following at The Paper Machete.
So it’s Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak. It’s funny, I always forget it’s that time of year until somebody reminds me, usually by mentioning that they’re fasting — yesterday it was a woman in the grocery store, turning down a free sample of hummus. She said, “Thanks but we’re fasting.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s Ramadan.” And my next thought was, “Ooh free hummus.”
That’s city living. I love getting news from the people next to me. I’ll spot the first marked forehead on the El and realize, oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday. Or I’ll see more and more tourists board the Red Line at rush hour acting like they’re on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and realize, oh yeah, there’s a night game at Wrigley.
Yeah, we can we can get all this information from our phones, but we don’t have to. We live on top of other people. We spread the word without using words. We absorb each others’ stories.
We also absorb each others’ sweat, on stupidly upholstered bus and train seats — and I bring these up because I’ve no doubt these fabric seats were designed by a non-urban dweller unfamiliar with the realities of proximity.
I’m here to talk about proximity. What is proximity?
Thesis question: If Point A is “a few blocks away” from Point B, are Points A and B “near” or “far”? Do the people at Point A give a shit what the people at Point B are doing?
If you’ve ever lived or worked in downtown Manhattan, your answers will likely be “far” and “no.”
What the conservative pundits who oppose the existence of a mosque “a few blocks away” from Ground Zero fail to realize is that, in New York City, a few blocks is a such a schlep.
I grew up in New York City. And people will ask me, “What’s your favorite pizza place?” And I’m sorry but the answer is the nearest one to wherever I happen to be standing. I’m not gonna schlep to another neighborhood to grab a slice. You want answers, I’m partial to the Kandilla’s on 91st and Broadway because I grew up a block away from it, but I haven’t been back there since my childhood, I don’t know or care if it still exists, and one time my teen-aged babysitter refused to take me there because the neighborhood was bad. That’s right, one block away was a different neighborhood in our eyes.
In New York it’s 20 blocks to the mile, so “a block” is just 264 feet, 4 yards short of a football field.
And still, NOTHING shocks and awes a native New Yorker more than being required to sojourn more than a football field for a basic need. If I haven’t seen two bodegas, a nail salon, a pizza shop, a drug store, a smoke shop, a stronghold dive bar, some sort of Asian cuisine, a cute little retail place to buy earrings, a frozen yogurt candy joint and humans of at least four different ethnicities by the time I make it “a few blocks,” it’s not a neighborhood.
So. Compare and contrast: My twisted little New Yorker’s definition of proximity with that of a person who once bolstered her understanding of Eastern European politics with the observation that she could see Russia from her house.
To be fair to Sarah Palin, she never actually said she could see Russia from her house. But even if she had? Girlfriend, I grew up seeing Russians from my apartment. In my apartment! Wearing a housecoat and smoking Virginia Slims. My grandma. She came to this country from Russia and fell in love with a second-generation Irish man and they had to elope because of their religions and my mom got turned off Judaism as a kid because when her Catholic dad came once to pick her up from Hebrew school in Queens, they wouldn’t let him enter the building. How far we’ve come in the realm of religious tolerance. Right, Sarah? Thanks for your Facebook note on Hanukkah.
A few nights ago I called one of my best friends from home who’s a more knowledgeable Jew than I am and also happens to live and work a few blocks from Ground Zero. And I asked her “What do you think of the mosque?”
She sighed deeply. “I can’t even — speak into the phone, it sounds like you’re underwater being eaten by wolves, The WHAT?”
She’s the only one who can’t understand me on my fancy new phone. “The MOSQUE. THE CHURCH FOR MUSLIM PEOPLE! MOSS-KUH!!”
“Oh, the mosque. What about it, what mosque?”
She follows the news, but this story cannot get a reservation in the forefront of her mind. “Oh that thing,” she says. “Who gives a shit? Do people give a shit?”
I tell her about Sarah Palin’s crusade, and the benches-clearing melee on Twitter. “They’re calling it the Ground Zero mosque even though it’s up on Park Place.”
She says “There should be a mosque IN the World Trade Center. That’s New York.”
“They say it’s hallowed ground.”
“Yeah, hallowed ground?” she says. “Like the slave cemetery nobody ever talks about?”
And this is why I love her. As you may recall, on a sunny day in 1991 some construction workers breaking ground for a government building on lower Broadway made a grizzly discovery. Archeologists were brought in. They identified 400 bodies of African men, women and children, stacked in wooden boxes in the 18th century and forgotten.
It took protests and petitions and candlelight vigils to finally cancel construction and put up a plaque. And I can guarantee what never crossed anyone’s mind. Micromanaging the activities two blocks away!
You know what’s within “a few blocks” of the African Burial Ground? A church. Wasn’t Christianity the religion of those people who flew their ships into peaceful African villages and kidnapped everyone? And you know what else is within “a few blocks” of the African Burial Ground, this sacred resting place of former slaves, this horrific reminder of the cruelest extremes of capitalist trade? The World Trade Center.
But you know what else is a few blocks away from the African Burial Ground? Another hundred people getting off of the train. And walking to work. And grabbing some coffee. And selling some coffee. Just like so many souls did for the last time on 9/11. They’re having a drink and buying some clothes and raising their kids going to the gym. And, yeah, by the way, sheltered, Wal-Mart, GPS America, some of those people rushing around downtown are Muslim. And you might never know, or care, until they’re passing out free Red Bull in Battery Park and somebody says “No thanks, I’m fasting” and you think, “Oh yeah. Free Red Bull.”
On August 14, 2010, the week Senator Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash, Bilal Dardai (The Neo-Futurists) read the following at The Paper Machete.
It might surprise you how many ways there are for you to react to a plane crash; and by “you,” going forward, I will mean “me,” but I am saying “you” because I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who thinks this way. And by “react to a plane crash” I mean “a plane crash you are not actually in,” because I suspect that there are very few ways to react to a plane crash you are actually in, all of which are variations of “oh no, I am in a plane crash.”
You expect to react with horror, of course, because a plane crash is horrific, a mess of tangled steel and broken limbs, the crater it leaves, the stench of jet fuel ablaze. But there is a part of you that reacts with a strange sense of blasé, a part that thinks irrational things like “oh, must be that time of year again,” as if it were allergy season, as if plane crashes were ragweed. There is a part of you that reacts with cold science to the numbers and size, decides that your empathy is proportional to how many dead versus how many survived. There’s that CSI part of you that focuses on the culprit, pointing fingers at the weather, at the pilot, at terrorism. There’s that ugly little goblin in your brain that is frantically writing the inappropriate jokes, the Need Another Seven Astronauts jokes, the jokes that you hope you are decent enough to veto with extreme prejudice.
Sometimes there is somebody you knew on the plane, and this gives you a whole subroutine of emotional response that can play out for years. You could find out right away that somebody close to you just fell out of the sky, or you could find out years later that the girl who refused to go with you to the spring formal was on the plane that hit the Pentagon.
You could read one Tuesday morning that a plane has crashed in southwest Alaska, and that on that plane was former Republican Senator Ted Stevens. Ted Stevens, who had served as Alaska’s senator for forty years, the longest-serving Republican in history, before being ousted by a young Democrat in 2008. And you might be completely perplexed as to how you should feel about that.
You don’t like to admit to all of your schadenfreude because you don’t want people to think you’re a sociopath. But you can name, for example, a certain former Vice President, a man who you suspect has survived so many heart attacks only because Satan is trying to stall the inevitable primary challenge. You think to yourself that although you wouldn’t wish noisy mangling death upon said former Vice President you would not necessarily mind if it were to happen that way. And for a moment you might try to convince yourself that Ted Stevens, Bush-era-Republican Ted Stevens, open-up-ANWR-for-drilling Ted Stevens, the-Internet-is-a-series-of-tubes Ted Stevens, that maybe you feel that sort of animus for him as well.
But this argument fails, and you’re left with the empty feeling that you should at least feel something. So you’re taking hours of time at work to do what amounts to seventh-grade research on the life and times of Ted Stevens, more attention than you ever paid to the man while he was alive. And you find out that his middle name was “Fulton.” And you find out that this was his second plane crash in Alaska, that the last one killed his first wife Ann.
And you find out something you should have known in the first place: Ted Stevens was another in a long line of human beings who live to the age of 87 and then pass away, leaving behind a varied series of memories and perspectives of how that life was lived, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you.
But you take the time to note that whenever this plane crash comes up again, it is going to be referred to as “the plane crash that killed Ted Stevens.” So you find an audience in a bar one afternoon and you remind them that this was also the plane crash that killed Terry Smith, Bill Phillips, and Dana and Corey Tindall.
But you don’t know how you feel about any of them, either.
On 5/22/10, in the wake of the crowning of the first Arab-American Miss USA, Bilal Dardai (The Neo-Futurists) read the following at The Paper Machete.
There was a word I intended to use in the first sentence of this monologue, but I couldn’t figure out which one it was. It was going to be epidemic but that felt melodramatic, or it was going to be proliferation but that felt apocalyptic. So it ended up being infestation. And I’m sorry for that. Because when you unleash the word infestation it ends up suspended in the room, like smoke from a hundred dying cigarettes, like oil on the surface of the ocean. It spreads and it crawls with arachnid legs across your nerve endings, infestation, it turns the crisp sugars of ginger ale to squid ink in your mouth, it mottles your oxygen, it sloughs down your esophagus like some alchemical horror of liquid steel and sepsis, infestation. I wish I could tell you that I found a better word, something sturdy and steadfast like abundance or ribald and colloquial like buttload. I wish I didn’t have to keep saying infestation but it was the only word that made sense to me in order to describe all of the question marks.
You’ll have to forgive me, because I didn’t see it, I wasn’t there. Or perhaps I was there but I wasn’t paying attention, or perhaps I was paying attention but I just didn’t care. It was like photograph fade or dolphin extinction, it was something that seemed to happen so gradually that I failed to notice until one day there they were, the question marks, everywhere, the infestation, staring back at me from the front page of CNN, from the front page of every American news organization. The question mark, that odd-looking duck of the punctuation family, the weird brother who sits in his room making dioramas of the lesser works of Poe, bent and bizarre like a chromosomal anomaly.
And you can’t blame the question mark, no, not really, any more than you can blame the fired bullet or the abused Rottweiler. There are writers behind the question marks and behind the writers there are editors and behind the editors there are boards, and behind the boards there are figures so high it would take you fifty years to count there. There are demands to draw viewers and surfers, to prioritize getting the story first before you could get it right. Somewhere along the way it occurred to an enterprising media maverick that you could get away with saying just about anything as long as you placed a question mark after it. As long as you implied that maybe you weren’t sure? That although most people would agree that the positions of our well-paid guest in the studio are hateful and uninformed, but maybe he has a point maybe possibly you decide for us with your comments and your ad revenue?
None of which is to say I am opposed to the asking of questions; questions are, after all, the cornerstone of journalism. Who What When Where How and Why. That’s the story. That’s basic. That’s 101.
A story, then, in reverse order. Why: because it’s an American tradition. How: by outscoring forty-nine other competitors. Where: Las Vegas, Nevada. When: last Sunday. What: Won the Miss USA pageant. Who: Rima Fakih, the reigning Miss Michigan, a 24 year-old Lebanese-American and Muslim who has, by now, become the most downloaded masturbation fantasy of Middle Eastern descent since Princess Jasmine.
CNN’s Thursday morning headline regarding that story: “Miss USA: Muslim trailblazer or Hezbollah spy?” Of course, of course, it was taken down shortly afterwards and there was a very terse statement about how this was never intended to appear on our site in that hot-linked Helvetica; a joke, son, ah say ah say can’t you take a joke?
Now I should say: I’m not a fan of beauty pageants, even ones cast for diversity. Better writers and better feminists than I have already produced doctoral theses on the subject so I’ll leave that alone, save to clarify a few things—one, that Miss USA is not the same thing as Miss America, it was founded by a Miss America sponsor when the 1952 champion refused to pose in that sponsors’ swimsuits, saying that she wanted to be taken seriously. And two, the pageant is owned by Donald Trump, a man who seems to covet Hugh Hefner’s prime, Don Draper cool but has only ever managed to achieve the affable hostility of Jay Leno after six months of anabolic steroids. And I’d remind everybody that we live in an American era where a beauty queen can be elected governor of Alaska, quit that job mid-term, and still be considered a viable presidential candidate in 2012. So consider the carnival atmosphere already in play by the time we arrive at “Muslim trailblazer or Hezbollah spy?”
I’m not a fan of beauty pageants but after the week she’s had I find I’m a fan of Rima Fakih. Not just because she’s gorgeous, and she is, the sort of honeyed, desert-at-dusk beauty that Gibran and Hafiz might have ached for in verse. Not just because she’s smart, and she is, an economics and business graduate from the University of Michigan who articulates her thoughts well during interviews. Despite all of these excellent qualities, I find I’m primarily a fan because her very existence as Miss USA drives many of the people I despise to the heights of delectable and hilarious insanity.
Rima Fakih won the title of Miss USA ahead of Miss Oklahoma Morgan Woolard, another in a long line of blonde-haired blue-eyed cheerleader types who tends to win these things, a woman who had absolutely no regrets about voicing her support for Arizona’s new immigration laws during the interview event. Like Carrie Prejean the year before her, Miss Woolard will be seen as a martyr to political correctness run amok. I’m sure she will enjoy a fine career for the next few years as the comely spokeslass of a start-up organization that reminds you at every turn: we don’t hate Mexicans, we just wish they’d all go back to Mexico. Give us money.
Rima Fakih unsettles the latter-day Crusaders, the people who started using adjectives like “swarthy” because “camel jockey” had fallen out of vogue. They bloviate, they blog, that she is an infiltrator, a sleeper agent, and CNN, yes, CNN has to indulge this nonsense the same way they feel they have to when somebody claims Barack Obama is a secret Muslim infiltrator as well. Because on the slim possibility that these lunatics are correct, CNN would hate to lose out on the market share.
But most deeply satisfying, to me, especially, to a child of an Islamic society, somebody who has witnessed firsthand the absurd logic of dogmatism, is the way Rima Fakih gets under the skin of hardline conservative Muslims. Mumbling, bearded half-clerics who refuse to tolerate such a woman for her killer swimsuit bod and who also want to celebrate her accomplishments as a victory for all Muslims. The brutal thugs in the rural parts of Pakistan who would gang up and assault Rima Fakih in the dark corner of a Peshawar alley and then have her stoned for adultery.
I would like these groups to sit together in a room and hate on Rima Fakih together so they can see how they’re all essentially the exact same brand of useless carcass that will be forgotten when the world shifts again. I imagine the end of that infestation. I imagine the cognitive dissonance as detonator. I imagine seeing enough exploding heads to remake Scanners a hundred times over. I imagine it to be glorious.
But it is, again, only something I imagine. And in the meantime we will have to endure CNN and its experiments in the limits of question marks.
Shortly after her victory a Michigan radio group released a series of photos of Rima Fakih dancing with a stripper’s pole at a competition, which featured no actual nudity. The Muslims and the other moralists all had outrage to express about her indecency and how she was not the right person to represent any of them. Ms. Fakih’s response was to shrug, say that it was all in fun, and move on to the next topic. I’m sure our news outlets were very disappointed in her.
I’ve been raised to believe that being Muslim is a genotype of sorts, that regardless of what you believe you are going to be a Muslim because you were born as such. Viewed through that perspective I’m just as Muslim as Rima Fakih. And if nobody else wants her to represent them, she can still represent me.
This weekend marks a milestone in The Paper Machete’s brief but wordy history, as we say goodbye to a dear member of the Machete family, Steve Heisler. He is moving to New York. He gets his Twitter picture on the line-up post and links to some of his great Machete moments. We will miss you, The Heis!
It’s a big one! Our dear friend Sarah Haskins (Current TV) is in town from LA, and she’ll be stopping by to wield the Machete along with a great list of regulars (including improv guru Susan Messing and musical guests Bethany Thomas & Sad Brad Smith in a rare duet). We’re also excited to welcome a very special first-time guest, Rich Cotovsky of the Mary-Arrchie Theater Company. (UPDATE: Rich can’t be there but we’ve just added Sylia Ewing to the bill; see below.) Don’t miss.