History: July 2010 Archives

America's backyard

We still haven't heard one peep from the commercial media/entertainment news corporations (even the simple fact that something's happening), but Mark Vorpahl has written an articulate and persuasive description of what's really behind the U.S. flotilla en route to the southern Caribbean (Mare Nostrum, or our "Fourth Shore"), "The U. S. Military Moves Into Costa Rica".

I am entirely in agreement with his conclusions. Anyone who would prefer not to be completely surprised by another shooting war, or the next U.S.-backed coup attempt, should read what he has to say.

An excerpt:

Most of these measures [recent U.S. military operations in Central and northern South America] have been justified on the grounds of combating drug trafficking, including the military buildup in Costa Rica. However, they have not curtailed this problem at all. Such U.S. military buildups have generally been accompanied by an increase in drug trafficking, as has happened in both Columbia and Afghanistan. Based on this record it can only be concluded that the "War on Drugs" rationale is a red herring for public relations consumption, not the actual motivation.

This military build up in Costa Rica is the latest in a series of moves the U.S. has made in Latin America that seeks to use threats and arms to reverse the strength of popular anti-imperialist forces across the region. The U.S. is playing with the possibility of erupting a continental conflagration for the sake of corporate profits.

While it is doubtful that the U.S. wants to directly engage in a military conflict with, most likely, Venezuela right now, preparations for this possibility are being made. What is more likely in the short term is that the U.S. military will use its forces to engage in sabotage and intimidation in hopes of reversing support for the nations aligned with ALBA. It is also very possible that the U.S. military will help to support proxy armies, such as Colombia's, in military conflicts that align with U.S. interests. However, this is a dangerous game. Even in the short term, the U.S. ruling class may drag the nation into another direct conflict, in spite of their intentions, that could spread to involve numerous other nations.

[image from Map of the United States (the irony was not likely intended)]

Coca (Erythroxylum coca)


This extended discussion on Upside Down World, published July 15, includes a statement that the idea of the U.S. military presence did not originate in a request from Costa Rica; rather it was initiated by the U.S. in a diplomatic request from the US Embassy made on July 1.

Also, in its own post on the Costa Rican story [in Spanish, but easily translated], the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz describes the operation as "continuing the process of the militarization of Central America" and refers to it as a part of the continuing U.S. agenda for Latin America, which has recently seen the establishment of seven bases in Colombia, intensified militarization in Honduras and Haiti, the announcement of new bases in Panama.

On July 2nd the Congress of Costa Rica authorized the entry of 46 U.S. warships capable of carrying 200 helicopters and warplanes, plus 7,000 U.S. Marines "who may circulate the country in uniform without any restrictions", plus submarine killer ships, to the Costa Rican coast for "anti-narcotics operations and humanitarian missions".

Where's the outrage? Actually, where in fact is the news?

I have not found a single line on this story anywhere in the MSM.

I think the media silence is probably the first thing which should be questioned (have we all, including the world at large, become inured to yet another attestation to the expanding American imperial lust?).

But I am just as shocked by the news itself. Why is this happening?

Is it because we've done so well with both our former and continuing foreign wars and interventions? Is it because we've done so well with our internal war on drugs, or because our impact on the drug traffic in other countries has been so benevolent?

Or does it actually have nothing to do with interventions, or drugs? I'd like to hear from people who are familiar with Costa Rica and have followed the events about which we currently hear nothing.

So far Costa Rica is only asking for "help", but remember how "helpful" our innate imperialist impulse has been elsewhere for two centuries. I can't imagine why any Latin American country would actually welcome the arrival of the U.S. military, unless of course there were banana kings running things at the top, or at least a right-wing regime, and they/it were worried about losing control. Oh, wait, bananas are still a major Costa Rican export, and the government, while enlightened, is still composed of members of an entrenched oligarchy, and by most accounts its biggest concern lately has been "security".

The current president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, who follows the modest centrist welfare policies of the National Liberation Party and promises to continue the free-trade policies of her predecessor, Óscar Arias, is a social conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage. But, more significant to the story of her nation's call for U.S. Military help, she ran on a platform which promised to be tough on crime, and it included a larger and more professional law enforcement establishment. Sworn in two and a half months ago, one of her first acts was to create the nation's first anti-drug "czar", whose office is a part of the cabinet.

For half a century Costa Rica had enjoyed peace and political stability, and, overall an impressive growth in economic prosperity and social welfare systems, but beginning in the 90's the country began to witness the rise of its own version of American neo-liberalism, which threatens the moderate socialism built up in the previous decades. It all sounds very American to me. The only thing missing was a security panic of their own and an indigenous drug war, and they've just ordered both.

But not everyone in Costa Rica is happy.

For a good discussion of the issues (with some reservation about a mostly-irrelevant postscriptive remark about the brave and unselfish volunteers in uniform), go to Costa Rica Blogger.

[all thanks to artist Pedro Velez for the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz post alert]

[image from Wikipedia]

Bayard Rustin's 1953 mug shot*

The CEO of an Atlanta credit union, on a visit to New Jersey for his 30th high school reunion, has been shot and killed in a Newark park by an undercover policeman. The alleged sex-related incident ended in the senseless death of an unarmed man, DeFarra Gaymon, a successful businessman and a married father of four.

The official explanation, delivered by the acting Essex County prosecutor (that the officer, trying to arrest Gaymon for lewd behavior, had fired in self-defense), makes no sense, and even if the pieces could be fitted together they suggest a world I thought had disappeared decades ago: I remember what many urban parks looked like after dark half a century back, I know that the police played them for sport, and I know the combination could destroy lives, but it's now 2010. This Essex County park is located in a state which by most accounts ranks at the very top in the nation in laws extending equality and civil rights to both the gay and black communities (yes, the victim was black), and I thought we now had better uses for our constabulary - and that we could still afford real uniforms.

Actually, 57 years ago Bayard Rustin got off much easier than DeFarra Gaymon, whatever the unfortunate Atlanta businessman was doing in the park last Friday night.

According to the New York Times story, "The officer, whose name was not released because of his undercover work, had been on what is not usually a particularly dangerous assignment, scouring the park, in northern Newark, for men seeking sex." The Times also tells us: "The officer and his partner were patrolling the park in plain clothes, part of an operation that has been going on for years, said Mr. [Robert D.] Laurino, the prosecutor."

And that would be, . . . an assignment to arrest men who have no interest in frightening the horses. In the email he sent out before dawn this morning my friend, the activist Bill Dobbs, reminds us that "Those who seek hookups in such locales traditionally shield their activities from uninterested parties."

The Essex County sheriffs have been very interested for years. May we ask why?

The whole incident stinks, and the only hope for justice, and reform of current police tactics, is the power of the presumed outrage of both Gaymon's family and the community or communities targeted by a law enforcement agency.

In his letter, Dobbs asks:

What exactly was this undercover officer doing in a park known for cruising? Uniformed cops are safer and more effective for such situations – less danger when an arrest is made since cops identities are clear. Who approved this undercover operation? Was it a ‘sting’ operation, enticing men and then arresting them? Was the cop given this assignment considered attractive to other men? Were there backup officers involved? What does the NJ gay lobby think about this? The only person who seems to be quoted on NJ matters gay, Steven Goldstein, is so rabidly and single-mindedly pro-gay marriage - will he and the state-wide gay political group Garden State Equality speak about an alleged sex-related incident that ended in the death of an unarmed African American man? According to the Star Ledger newspaper several hundred arrests have been made in that park over a year and a half, where has Garden State Equality been? How much money has been wasted on this operation?

Additional links:

The (Newark-based) Star-Ledger

Atlanta Journal Constitution

The image at the top is of Bayard Rustin's mug shot. His Wikipedia entry reads, in part:

In 1953, Rustin was arrested in Pasadena, California for homosexual activity. Originally charged with vagrancy and lewd conduct, he pleaded guilty to a single, lesser charge of "sex perversion" (as consensual sodomy was officially referred to in California then) and served 60 days in jail.

[image from GBMNews]


This image includes only one segment of a vast checkered display set up in the Union Square Greenmarket last Friday by Samascott Orchards, of Martin van Buren's Kinderhook, New York. The cherries were going fast.

Speaking of van Buren, I just learned that the bewhiskered knickerbocker, incidentally the first president from New York (and the first born in the U.S.), was the first one for whom English was not a first language. We're still waiting for the second, and, if we all survive, there should be many more.

The boy went far. If he were alive today, what do we think he'd say about our modern Know Nothings? But maybe there's no real parallel, since his family, and many other Dutch settlers, had been busy, and dominant, in the upper Hudson valley since the early 1600's, before English, or the English had subsumed all. Also, the Dutch were pretty white, and definitely not Catholic. Today's Know Nothings have to find a way to get around the fact that if there are any "illegals", it's the people who stole the West, indeed the entire Western Hemisphere, from those who were there first.

wrought iron trivet, likely late eighteenth century, probably Rhode Island 7" x 5.75" x 1.75"

I'm normally almost dysfunctional if asked to speak in front of a group, but I hardly hesitated when Austin Thomas asked if I would be a part of “One Image, One Minute: Significant People Present Significant Images”. The event, hosted at Hyperallergic on June 22, was a benefit for Camp Pocket Utopia, a creative summer project, social school and free arts camp for kids, being put together by Thomas and the nonprofit space Norte Maar. Their ambitious program, to be located at Rouses Point in upstate New York, will be based on a learning model created at Black Mountain College, as interpreted by Thomas, who describes it further:

The Camp hopes to inspire a conversation amongst artists, creative thinkers, and the community, empowering participants and observers to think for themselves while offering a free arts camp for the kids of Rouses Point, NY, and the surrounding North Country.

I was honored, and eventually psyched (almost) to be a part of the terrific "show and tell" organized as a fundraiser for the project. Thomas had asked twenty-five people to each submit an image of something very important to them, and to talk about it for one minute. Almost immediately I thought of the trivet shown at the top of this post, and told her I would contribute, since I knew I wouldn't have any trouble talking about something I know well and which has meant a lot to me.

I only had to stand up there for 60 seconds. How hard could that be? It turned out that the hardest part was the time restriction. I didn't want to read from notes, and I didn't want to stress out by doing too much preparation, but, less than an hour before leaving for Williamsburg, when I first did a run-through, I realized I had enough material for five or ten times my time slot.

We were told we would be called up in alphabetical order, so I had plenty of time while I waited. Grade school flashback: Once again Wagner was going to be the last to give his report (I'd like to think Austin had thought of that conceit, for its connection to her larger, school-ish project). I managed to pare it down a lot from my piece while I sat waiting my turn, but much of the story survived.

It was a successful experiment. It made for a thought-provoking evening, and it drew a great group of people - on both sides of the tiny apron stage.

One of the reasons the trivet had come to my mind must have been that it was a simple and beautiful thing. It was a rough material, yet it had left the forge with an awesome grace. It was totally functional, but perfectly sculpted: Each of its branches was chamfered along its entire length and the 90-degree twist of the longest arm was an artist's aesthetic gesture and, perhaps, a strengthening fillip.

It was also a thing whose description, and even its personal importance, I originally thought could be described in one minute.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, my enthusiasm for contemporary visual art, It had not occurred to me to look there for a subject. The reservoir was too vast, and I probably sensed that I'd never be able to focus on the one work which, using the adjective in Austin's invitation, was particularly "important to me". I had looked elsewhere for my subject.

For many years I had created, and still cherish, an environment pretty much removed from modernism of any kind. I chose to share something from that world; I chose this trivet, a humble piece of worked ("wrought") iron.

It was created in southeastern New England, probably somewhere in Rhode Island, and probably in the late eighteenth century. Its working purpose: to elevate a plate, pan or heavy pot above hot coals spread onto a hearth, or, alternatively, above a table surface which would be damaged by a hot vessel.

The material is bog iron, which was once found locally near the surface of the ground (no longer of any practical interest except to antiquarians). It's a very low-carbon metal (unlike steel), and easily malleable. It was the work of a skilled blacksmith. It has a characteristic "grain" (again, unlike steel). Because of its purity, it's extremely resistant to rusting.

I brought it with me from Rhode Island 25 years ago, when I decided to give up the simple mid-eighteenth-century clapboard house in Providence which I and my partner at the time had bought (in 1970). We restored it [I have to say, "lovingly" restored it] over a number of years, until it looked like it had never needed restoring. It was both a home and a house museum: I thought we would live there until we died, and it was furnished entirely with things appropriate to its date, its geography and the particular economic circumstances of its original occupants. There was essentially no upholstered furniture.

This trivet was a working part of that house, and so was I.

The curatorial assignment my partner and I had undertaken (after we learned the real antiquity of what we had initially thought was just an old rundown house, a very rundown house) precluded living with contemporary art, in spite of the interest we both had for the art of our own time. Instead, for 15 years I lived with art that was contemporary to the earliest period of the house, and there was very little of that.

In the years of assembling things for the house I consciously avoided interesting examples of regional New England folk art, even though it wouldn't have been difficult to secure such things, because it seemed so unlikely that the interior of our very modest, and genuinely urban, house would have seen much of the folksy kind of decoration so prized today. Also, Shaker design did not yet exist at the time the house was built, and when it did, the communities which produced it were nowhere near Rhode Island. Much of what I did have may have looked "Shaker", but I can't say any of it was.

But I kept my passion for both historic and contemporary art, even if I was sheltered under a very old roof and beside a large, fully-equipped cooking hearth. Beyond my newly-founded antiquarian interests, I still wanted to be surrounded by art. The house itself was an incredibly understated design, and I found myself going for the simplest, most elegant forms of practical furniture and artifacts, in wood, glass, metal and pottery: There was that fabulous Mochaware mug with a geometric shape and pattern which would not have looked out of place in the Bauhaus, and that beautiful provincial Sheraton side chair with squared, vertical splats, that could have posed as a Josef Hoffman prototype.

I did some serious cooking in that house, in both the almost-modern kitchen and on the open hearth (I cook more than ever today, but without those wood fires), so I'm not surprised that I almost immediately fell in love with the small tool which I had picked up, probably in an old barn, soon after we were first able to use the fireplaces.

My partner and I broke up, and when I finally decided to decamp to New York, in 1985, I sold much of its contents and put the house up for sale.

I brought the trivet with me. Today it rests only on the counter or the table. Its cooking days may be over, but I prize it as much as I ever did, for its function, its beauty and its associations. Although there are hundreds of drawings and paintings hanging on our walls, when guests are here, especially for dinner, I'm just as likely to pull this little black tripod off the kitchen counter and play "show and tell" with it as anything else in the apartment.

So is it sculpture? I seems to defy categories. Although it may end up on the table at many meals, while the pot it supports will return to the kitchen, the trivet remains. I never tire of looking at it.

The other presenters at the benefit were Laura Braslow, Deborah Brown, Paul D'Agostino, Anna D'Agrosa, Jen Dalton, Kianga Ellis, Louise Fishman, Veken Gueyikian, Rachel Gugelberger, Chris Harding, Valerie Hegarty, Roger Hodge, Lars Kremer, Ellen Letcher, Matthew Miller, Brooke Moyse, Ellie Murphy, James Panero, Gravelle Pierre, Cathy Nan Quinlan, Paul Rome, Adam Simon, Jonathan Stevenson, and Douglas Utter.

[someday soon I hope to set up a gallery devoted specifically to images of the house]

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