Politics: June 2010 Archives

the enemies finally come face to face

We watched the restored version of "All Quiet on the Western Front" at home late last night. Before yesterday I had neither read the book nor seen the film. This early talkie, an eighty-year-old masterpiece, has survived, both as art and as a surprisingly strong piece of theater. It's terrifying, when it's not heart-braking, and there's nothing maudlin or melodramatic about it.

It's an extraordinary film; don't wait for the remake.

As if it just watching "Front" were not already enough of a profound and moving experience, today we learned that the event that precipitated The Great War. The conflict that inspired Remarque's seminal anti-war novel, and Russian-born Louis Milestone's 1930 film of the same name which was based on the world-wide best-seller, occurred exactly ninety-six years ago (still within living memory - of at least a very few). While today is the anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, It's also the anniversary of the Versailles Treaty which officially ended the hostilities between the remaining major combatants. That accord was signed ninety-one years ago today.

The war was supposed to be "the war to end all wars", the phrase a perverse, but catchy rationalization which was actually invented early on by its most enthusiastic champions.

It's clear however that, as the direct heirs of its horrors, which include the Second World War, among others, we haven't learned a thing in the intervening years. This is in spite of the hopes of the remarkable German author of "Front" and most of the people connected with the film, including its fictional chief protagonist, Paul Bäumer, and the very real pacifist actor who played him, Lew Ayres.

In the image above Paul is lamenting the death, by his own hand, of a French Soldier who had lept into his trench in the chaos and heat of a particularly violent infantry battle.

In the Turner Classics commentary supplied with the DVD, film historian Robert Osborne sincerely and persuasively proposes that subtitles be created in every language, that the film be shown to people all over the world, and that they should see it again and again, once every year.

But today a country whose people mistakably believe themselves to be the most peace-loving on earth, have created two optional, trillion-dollar, asymmetric wars, killing fields inside dirt-poor nations which have no working governments, on the other side of the planet, and it seems we can give no justification for our continuing these wars other than the fact that we are at war(s). In retrospect, a century later, even the fools and jingoes who marched off in 1914 don't look so singularly absurd as we once thought they did.

Besides, while the number of casualties in 1914-1918 certainly dwarf the total of all losses in the Middle East, that war was at least brought to a halt in four and a quarter years. Our own, current madness has already gone on twice that long.

[image from leftofcybercenter]


There will be a great congregation of friends and activists inside the Great Hall at the Cooper Union tomorrow evening at six o'clock. There they will be celebrating the rich life of Harry Wieder, cut short, shockingly, in an accident in April.

Harry was a familiar friend and powerful advocate of many progressive causes, so I expect the room will resemble a portrait of the face of New York grassroots activism (of almost every sort) as it operated over the last few decades.

I also expect that this memorial will not be a lugubrious affair. Harry meant a lot to the people who shared his life and his dedication. But we also knew how to share in laughter, and there should be plenty of that tomorrow.

Harry was also completely familiar with the historic Great Hall, not least for his regular attendance at ACT UP meetings, which continued while they were being held there in the early 90's. It was a time, difficult to imagine today, when the press of hundreds of AIDS activists (I'm sure I remember hearing the number 700 one week), attracted by the urgency of the issues and the energy of the coalition, had forced a move from the pre-restoration Center to a larger venue. It was Cooper which welcomed us.

I've been back many times since those years, and Barry and I will be there tomorrow.

Speaking of ACT UP, and the kind of energy which seems in scarce supply these days, the incredibly-important ACT UP Oral History Project has just added 14 new interviews with ACT UP activists and add 9 important video clips and transcripts to its web site. Visit, rummage around, then go out and change the world.

While working on this post I once again found myself Googling for an image of "Harry Wieder"; there aren't a great number, and most of them are mixed in with a much, much larger number of images of "Prince Harry". Our Harry would love that.

[image via pinknews]


Barry and I were at Grand Ferry Park Saturday afternoon, but, bicycle-less and resolved to remain fully-clothed, we were were able to offer nothing more than admiration and documentation for New York's contribution to the World Naked Bike Ride. We watched an upbeat crowd of enthusiasts assemble and ride off in a deliciously and infectiously brash rally which took them over the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan as far north as the UN before returning across the river later to party.

Enthusiasts in cities all over the planet have been taking this annual event very seriously for years. They seem to get it, even if New York doesn't. With an ebullience and a commitment which should be heartening to anyone who questions our culture of oil and cars, and who supports a sustainable transport alternative, people elsewhere have taken to the streets in impressive numbers - and in unashamed expression. Until yesterday however, in spite of (or because of?) the Naked Bike Ride's Dionysian attractions and its celebration of freedom, New York's participation had for years been chimerical, and finally pretty underwhelming.

I doubt anyone's been counting cheeks, but it looks to me like the city "showed" better this year (even if we're not yet up to the standard set by a certain awesome English seaside resort town).

Note: To be fair, the images I'm publishing at the top and bottom of this post are a somewhat misleading representation of what the bicyclists looked like once they hit the road. Many of the costumes seen here were later removed, beginning even as the group was assembling at the top of Grand Ferry Park. To wit:



In the still and video images I've seen on line, most spectators around the city seem to have enjoyed their exposure to the group's rolling march, but some may be asking what's the connection between environmentalism, bicycles, and nakedness. Why is this action naked? I may be prejudiced, but I'd say that not only do bikes have a huge potential for raising the quality of the environmental, one which we could start realizing almost immediately, but bikes also (when used civilly) seem to be able to charm almost anyone.

So bikes may be excellent poster children for saving the planet, but why naked bicyclists?

Two years ago Mark Barwell, a very fit-looking English environmental activist, took part in the Brighton & Hove Naked Bike Ride, and the BBC interviewed him prior to the run, photographing him in road costume ("completely starkers", as the reporter offered in the accompanying audio link). Barwell discussed the serious objectives of the demonstration and went on to address what everyone always zeros in on: "The idea is to be as loud as possible, really", he said, and then he offered the best explanation ever for its anomalous motif: [my transcript below]

Cyclists on the road are really the most vulnerable road users. Cycle lanes tend to appear and disappear all over the place, and drivers as a rule are quite sensitive to cyclists on the road, but there are quite a lot of issues where we're very much vulnerable, and that's where the naked thing comes in. It's to highlight the vulnerability, and also, as a follow through, to celebrate body freedom, and the fact that a naked body really isn't that bad a deal.

It must have had something to do with the rendezvous' Williamsburg location: I don't think I've ever before seen so much pale nerd skin, its beauties enhanced here by a lot of body paint broadcasting genuine conviction.

The image at the top is of the group about to leave the park; those which appear below were all collected in the hour before.









For much more, go to the New York Post video site for Jeff Lieberman's excellent video coverage of the ride's swath through Manhattan.

[I tried my best to get this post up sooner, but I was having serious server problems all day Sunday]

ADDENDA: I've uploaded additional images on Flickr, and Gothamist has more photos and video (look for Oliver "waving" to the cars on the bridge); go for the slide show on John Zwinck's feed and that of dogseat

but it won't be just about the uniform

I love bikes; I love bicyclists; I love naked. Tomorrow afternoon, Saturday, in a rare, very special concurrence of the stars, like-minded enthusiasts will be privileged to witness or be part of an awesome event promising all three distractions - if they make their way over to Williamsburg some time around 5 o'clock.

World Naked Bike Ride will be celebrated by New York-area enthusiasts starting with a rally beginning at that hour in Grand Ferry Park. Time's Up! has the details here.

The annual world-wide event is described by our local activists as "A fun and liberating protest towards reducing the dangers posed to our world and our bodies by auto and oil dependence!", and they advise:

Clothing is optional, please come as bare as you dare. Creative costuming is also highly encouraged. Body painting and bike decoration will start at 5pm, with the ride departing no sooner than 6:30pm, no later than 7:00pm. Be sure to bring lights, bells, a sense of humor and a positive attitude!

There will be plenty of laughs to accompany a message born in disgust and anger, and one which is growing increasingly louder, but the continuing, and still unfolding, news about the horrors of the Gulf oil spill ensures that both the humor and the protest will be more visible and powerful this year.

The media can no longer afford to ignore the issues which will bring masses of colorful and determined bicyclists into streets all around the world tomorrow.

The picture at the top is from last year's (world-wide) event, specifically, "Naked Bike Ride London 2009". The Brits seem totally into it.

[image from itslefty via Flickr]

This page is an archive of entries in the Politics category from June 2010.

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