War: December 2004 Archives

Peter Hujar Susan Sontag [1974-1975]

Susan Sontag died on Tuesday.

Beginning almost twenty years ago I had included her as a part of the homeland I had just adopted and which she had acquired at birth. Because of my profound general "otherness" and two nearly-profound early family dislocations, while it may not strictly fit the meaning of the German das Heimat, my New York City home had come to mean everything for me.

In this Manhattan Heimat Susan Sontag was my neighbor. Physically she really was my neighbor, since she owned an apartment just two blocks away from mine. For years I saw her everywhere in the city, although we never met. Her mind and what she was doing with it had already ensured that she would mean much more to me than an ordinary neighbor normally could. And then one evening I walked through the aura with which I had surrounded her.

I had already seen Edgar Reitz's monumental first "Heimat," (most sections twice) when I eagerly subscribed to the first American screening of the thirteen episodes of "Zweite Heimat" at the Public Theater almost twelve years ago.

After arranging myself in the first row for a double feature of two episodes, I noticed that she was only a few seats to my left. Only by coincidence, I had brought her new book, "The Volcano Lover," with me to keep me occupied while waiting for the lights to go down. I think it was during the break that I gathered the courage to speak to her and ask if she might sign my copy.

I must have mumbled a few words, I hope not too gushing, about how much I admired both her writing and her bold social and political activism, and then we exchanged a few thoughts about the film, all of which escape me now, except that we discovered that we were both enormous fans of both epics. She signed the book, "for Barry and Jim - Susan Sontag 'Heimat 6&7' 7 July 1993."

On every other day I spotted her in the audience she was totally absorbed in conversations with various companions. I was saved from embarassing myself, but I seriously regret the lost opportunities. Gosh, I wish I could have gone with her to Sarajevo, but Barry has written from the heart about how much she became a part of our New York experience, of our own shared Heimat.

She will certainly be greatly missed by many.

It's late Tuesday night as I'm writing this. The death toll for all the shores around the Indian Ocean, the work of one wave over only a few hours, has now exceeded that of the U.S. military alone in Vietnam over a period of ten years. I'm already recalling Sontag's unassailable morality, her creative curiosity and her courageous voice as I think about the individual and community tragedies millions of people in southern Asia are enduring at this moment. What would Sontag say about our government's lame response? Colin Powell is absolutely wrong. We are stingy, very stingy, and we have been for decades.*

*The United States initially offered $15 million in relief to cover all of the nations affected (what we spend on the Iraq war every hour, and a fraction of the estimated cost of Bush's January 20 Nuremberg rally). Oh sure, after being ridiculed by people in a number of other countries, we've now apparently upped our commitment by another $20 million, although that figure is marked as a loan.

Radically contrary to popular U.S. opinion, the amount of our foreign aid, in terms of percentage of gross national product (approximately one tenth of one percent), is the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. Incidently, Norway's contribution is proportionately almost ten times that of ours.

[image from Matthew Marks via artnet]


A lot has changed in 65 years. The country which built this great skyscraper now seems to have decided it can do so much better without wisdom or knowledge; we're in for a very bumpy ride.

I took the photograph at dusk, while walking across town on Monday. The image is of Lee Lawrie's sculpture relief above the front entrance of the RCA Building (today sometimes thoughtlessly referred to as the GE Building) on Rockefeller Plaza. According to the Rockefeller Center Visitor's Guide, the William Blake-inspired figure represents Wisdom, who rules over man's knowledge and interprets the laws of nature. The compass points to the light and sound waves of the cast glass screen below. The inscription is based on Isaiah 33:6

"To the whites, the lives of their black office boys or chauffeurs seem unimaginably separate and isolated from their own. . . . But to the urban Africans, the 'Europeans' are the ones who seem isolated, in their remote and hidden mansions in the superior suburbs. The Africans no longer feel themselves reliant on white patrons or promoters for their education and cultural development; they see themselves as the heirs of Western civilization, and the 'Europeans' as the impostors."
Anthony Sampson, a British jouranalist and biographer of Nelson Mandela, was writing about the divide which separated whites from blacks in the cities of Apartheid-era South Africa, but today his last sentence seems prophetic on a scale he might not have imagined when it was published in the NYTimes Magazine in 1960: Try substituting the word "non-Europeans" for the word "Africans" and the world won't look as simple as it might have a moment before.


Sampson loved Africa and Africans, as much as he loved civilization and liberty, human rights and social justice. He died on Saturday at the age of 78.

my own rather lame sign, as seen somewhere in the system this afternoon

(the sign on the guy's left reads, "I'm here on a research grant from Al Queda")

this sign became a moving beacon for today's odyssey (the stylized font reads, "TERRORISTS UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT")

The second time around it had already seemed a little routine. Some of the wonder and energy which had accompanied the first MTA photo ban zap was missing this afternoon, but I have to admit there were a few sassy-sarcastic signs this time, and there was even something resembling an information handout.

We're getting better at broadcasting the issue, but actually I'd be very happy if we never had to do this thing again. Will the MTA come to its senses?

Perhaps not, if some of the sentiments of subway users overheard today mean anything. One woman, although a little sympathetic to our argument, was seriously worried about the threat cameras pose to the privacy of riders. While she was speaking to me, standing on the subway platform, I snapped the picture below and pointed out what had attracted my attention. She had nothing more to say.


[image at the top of this post from jpreardon.com]

REMINDER: Don't miss being a part of the photographers' 'Flash Mob' subway ride protest against the MTA proposal to ban all cameras from the entire transit system. The organizers' plan is to meet tomorrow, Saturday, at 1 o'clock in the awesome Main Concourse inside Grand Central Terminal. Don't forget your metro card and your camera. Bring a sign with a creative message, even a small one.

The magnificent Concourse is worth a picture even without the addition of hundreds of concerned young camera fanatics, and if the MTA has its way, this will be one of your last chances to record its spendors.

But at least they're finally looking around. The NYTimes may hope to redeem itself for sitting out the Bernard Kerik story in its first weeks. The paper's news and editorial departments had totally ignored the developing stories about Kerik's shady background until after he withdrew his name from consideration as Homeland Security secretary.

Maybe they're trying to get up to speed now by cutting to the quick. This morning the Times devotes 40 column inches to the questions surrounding the mysterious nanny whose immigration and tax status was used as the reason for Kerik's withdrawal.

Included among those questions is the fundamental one I posed early this past Sunday, whether in fact there ever was a nanny in the first place.

Last night, Mr. Kerik was told that skeptics in city government circles were questioning the very existence of the nanny, and he was pressed to provide any kind of evidence to document that she was real. But after taking time to consider the request, Mr. Kerik again decided to remain silent on the subject.
Why do I care so much about this story? It starts with the embarassment I feel for my city that Giuliani and Kerik have at least until recently been successful in conspiring with the opportunists in Washington to ensure that two locally-notorious goons came to represent or embody 9/11 and New York. The fire of my outrage about the choice of Kerik was stoked by the uninhibited enthusiasm for the nomination expressed by New York's Democratic politicians Hillary Clinton and Charles Shumer - and the irresponsible, uncritical reporting of my hometown's largest paper.

The lights are going out, the doors are all closing; where will we look for truth, honesty and integrity now?

Ward Sutton KARL ROVE SUMS IT UP FOR LIBERALS 2004 syndicated cartoon detail

See the entire 16-box Ward Sutton cartoon on The Village Voice site. My personal favorite/horror has got to be, "WE USED 9/11 AND NEW YORK CITY LIKE A CHEAP WHORE."

[image from The Village Voice]

Kerik complex.jpg
but what kind of complex?

Anyone who is familiar with the basics of his career knows that Bernard Kerik's nanny story is a red herring, but is there any evidence that there even was a nanny, or at least a nanny whose immigration status would have been problematic for Kerik?

I think not, but I'm sure we'll find out soon.

[ugly image of an ugly sign citing an ugly man for an ugly career, found on the New York City Department of Corrections site; the illustration is from an archived story on the re-naming of the Manhattan Detention Complex, just three months after September 11, while Kerik was still Police Commissioner]


They're still trying!

Trying, that is, to outlaw photography in the New York transit system. Last June I wrote about a fantastic zap I had participated in called by "The Photographers Rights campaign." That same group has called another zap for December 18th in response to the MTA's continued ill-conceived intention to remove cameras from users of the system in the name of security.

Remember that token clerks have already been removed from many stations altogether, and more will eliminated in the future, ultimately abandoning the platforms to Metrocard machines and the public's own devices for ensuring their safety. There are also plans to ultimately remove conductors, and eventually drivers as well, from every train, removing all MTA employee presence from the public areas where millions of New Yorkers find themselves confined every day.

The removal of cameras will have precisely the opposite effect of security from terrorism. Anywhere else they call them "security cameras," for Pete's sake!

From the group's site:

Many of us are determined to not let this go by unnoticed and without protest; Join us, plan on taking your camera out for a day of photography that won't ever be forgotten, with a flash mob photo session that will even make the MTA board want to be there with cameras. It'll be one of those “Only in New York” things you've been hearing about...
Meet December 18th on the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal, and bring your photo apparatus of course. It shouldn't be hard to spot all the other people with cameras, especially with the even larger crowds expected this time.

Oh, yes, and this time let's wear signs. People should be able to see the point.

On a related note, the same officials who want a photo ban also want to make it impossible to move from one subway car to another. Think about that one the next time you read about someone going berserk inside a moving train.

Talk to or write your Councilmember about both these issues.

[image from my June 6, 2004, post]

This page is an archive of entries in the War category from December 2004.

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