Day’s Inn, days out

March 18, 2008

I am writing today from the Day’s Inn on New York City’s Upper West Side, a hotel that is in the news today: Here is where New York’s new governor, David Paterson, and his wife carried on some extramarital affairs during what they referred to as a “rocky period” in their marriage. My stay here is just coincidence, however. The Day’s Inn is one of the few remaining reasonably decent hotels in Manhattan for around $200 per night, not counting taxes. It is clearly a place where African-Americans feel comfortable–in fact, it may be an African-American owned business, although that is just an impression not borne out by any investigation.

I am in the city briefly to see my agent, conduct some business for Science, and see a couple of friends. Walking the streets of Manhattan has always been a high for me, ever since the days (nearly 25 years ago) when I was just starting out as a writer and making the rounds of NY-based magazines. As it turned out, most of the publications I have written for over the years have been based in Washington, DC (Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler), Los Angeles (Bon Appetit, LA Weekly, LA Times, etc) and Santa Barbara, California (Islands) rather than the Big Apple; but the publisher of my first book, Simon and Schuster’s Free Press, is certainly located here, as is my super agent. And what could be greater bliss than sitting in a New York diner early in the morning, reading the New York Times as the waitress refills your coffee cup until you get that nice caffeine buzz so good for the brain (although probably not good for the heart.)

Anyway, front page of the Times today features a story about Obama, “On Defensive, Obama Plans Talk on Race.” The candidate has pastor problems, credibility problems, image problems, etc. Although I voted for Obama in the California primary (absentee from Paris, just hope my vote was really counted) I have never seen him as a savior, despite his obvious charisma. He is simply one of the better progressives the Democratic Party has (rarely) produced in recent years, but he is a Democrat, subject to and restricted by the fairly strict confines of that very conservative organization. Nevertheless, it is alarming to see him slipping on the trail of banana peels that Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been laying down in his path, because Clinton–as I have said so many times on other blogs such as–is in my view one of the most opportunistic politicians this country has ever produced. The most depressing thing, however, is how many people have bought her line about “experience” and “tested” when her recent record is simply awful: Voting to authorize the war in Iraq, more recently voting for the Lieberman bill (an obvious authorization for war in Iran), voting against the ban on cluster bombs (Obama voted for it), and what to me is the most serious example of her terribly wrong judgement, Clinton’s blanket endorsement of Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon to fight Hezbollah.

Indeed, this is proof of the vacuousness and bankruptcy of identity voting. It makes no more sense to vote for Clinton because she is a woman, as so many feminists are advocating, than to vote against her because she is a woman; likewise, to vote for Obama because he is African-American makes no more sense than to vote against him for the same reason. Identity politics has helped greatly to obscure the candidates’ real political views, and this goes for both Clinton and Obama even if I personally favor Obama on political grounds.

There is a lot at stake here. If Clinton somehow manages to grab the nomination, via a combination of cynical manipulation of the process (could her insistence on counting the results in Michigan and Florida be any more clear an example?) or cynical attacks on Obama out of the “Republican playbook,” as they say, what will we be left with? Millions of disillusioned progressive Democrats, and a McCain presidency. In my earlier days as a student revolutionary, I thought these were just the right conditions to move the country to the left (eg 1968, the Nixon-Humphrey faceoff.) Now I am not so sure. Things really can get worse, and they can stay worse, for as long as we all live.



March 16, 2008

I’m in Nyack, New York at the moment, visiting a good friend who lives here–I will call her P. Nyack is a small, twee town on the Hudson River, whose silvery expanse I can see from the window of P’s office. The town is close enough to Manhattan to qualify as one of its bedroom communities, but insular, peaceful, and interesting enough to be a world of its own. It’s the kind of place I could see myself living in if I ever decided to come back to the United States from Paris, where I have now lived for 20 years.

P and I were supposed to see George Packer’s play “Betrayed” last night, but she got stuck on a deadline and had to bow out. So I borrowed her car and headed into Manhattan, crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, gliding down the Saw Mill Parkway and its continuum, the Henry Hudson Parkway, down to Soho where The Culture Project–which describes itself as part arts organization, part human rights organization–has been hosting the play since February (its run has now been extended into May, anyone planning to be in New York City between now and then should consider seeing it.)

“Betrayed” has received a number of very positive reviews, mostly notably from the New York Times’ former Iraq correspondent Dexter Filkins in the Times’ 3 February 2008 issue. The play is based on Packer’s New Yorker article last year about Iraqi translators who signed on enthusiastically to work with the Americans after the invasion of their country and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, only to be cast aside when threats from insurgents made it clear that their lives were in danger (threats that in some cases were carried out.)

I will leave it to anyone interested to read the reviews and check out The Culture Project’s Web site, especially while I figure out how WordPress creates links (a novice blogger, I can’t understand why they are created and then disappear when I save them; I will get it figured out soon, maybe with the help of my Boston University independent studies student who is doing a blog of his own.) My own thoughts are these: Packer, who initially supported the invasion of Iraq but soured on the war after it started going badly wrong–a process he details with great angst and skill in his book “The Assassin’s Gate”–likewise features Iraqis who rejoiced at Saddam’s demise but soon learned that the United States was no savior of their country. Given Packer’s great compassion for his subjects, and the obvious humanity he shows in his writing about Iraq for the New Yorker and in his book, it might seem churlish to ask how he and other supporters of “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq could have trusted their values to the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ronald Rumsfeld, et al. Yet it really is time to ask what those of us who opposed the war from the beginning saw in this situation that Packer and other well-intentioned observers and analysts did not.

I hope to expand on this issue in future posts, but meanwhile there is a corollary question to be asked. Why did so many Americans, including so many who consider themselves “liberals,” fall for the Bush-Cheney warmongering propaganda in the runup to the invasion? Some cite fear after 9/11, but Americans have routinely allowed themselves to be hoodwinked into wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and, a near-miss here, Iran. Indeed, it is depressing just how easy it has been to lead an entire nation into wars that suck up billions of dollars and destroy hundreds of thousands of lives. One might almost think that many Americans, who in this day and age find it easy to wage war and have the best means to do it, often don’t give a second thought to the blood and treasure they spill on a regular basis. We, and the victims of our callous carelessness, pay the price soon enough–but the lessons always come too late.

More soon on this.

It takes the media a while to catch up with reality. The number of US casualties has climbed rapidly in past weeks, the deaths from suicide bombings are escalating back to pre-surge levels, but most news stories continue to parrot Bush administration claims that the surge is working. Watch for US deaths to surpass 4000 very soon; perhaps that threshold will bring a fresh examination of what is really going on.

Race and Hillary Clinton

March 13, 2008

This is the first blog entry since December, mainly because I have not yet decided whether I want to blog or not! (not a great way to build traffic for this site, I realize.) But I hope everyone had the chance to watch Keith Olbermann on MSNBC tonight, where he let fly at Geraldine Ferraro’s racist remarks and Hillary Clinton for basically tolerating them. Hillary is playing the race card to the hilt, in fact she no doubt has been relying on it all along. The amazing thing is that, contra Ferraro, Obama seems to be winning despite being black rather than because of it. Just one reason to be encouraged at recent developments in America, and all the better to see the Clintons for the despicable, opportunistic people they are.

Well, this is my first post, and not sure if I am even going to do this! For starters, the bio posted on on Web site, , where no one can talk back to me. Back soon with more.

MICHAEL BALTER was born in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and grew up in Los Angeles. He attended UCLA from 1965-69, where he was a leader in the movement against the Vietnam War. From 1969-71, he organized GI’s against the war as a soldier stationed at Fort Ord, California. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in biology from San Jose State University, he returned to UCLA, where he was granted a master’s degree in biology in 1977.

Balter then went into journalism, first at Pacifica’s Los Angeles station, KPFK, and then as a freelance writer for the L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and Los Angeles magazine, among others. He was also an oral historian at UCLA’s Oral History Program. During the early 1980s, he worked on the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against L.A.’s police department for spying on peaceful political groups.

In 1988, Balter married an Englishwoman and moved to Paris, where he wrote for the International Herald Tribune, Islands, Travel & Leisure, Bon App├ętit, and the Columbia Journalism Review, among others. From 1993-2002 he was Paris bureau chief for Science, for which he now works as Contributing Correspondent. Balter also writes for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He divides his time between Paris, where he lives with his wife and daughter, and the East and West Coasts of the United States.