Monday, October 31, 2005

What's That Smell?

by Nicholas Allanach

On the evening of Thursday October 27th, I had just finished watching Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” (admittedly, not one of my proudest past times). After the show, I shut off the static box and began reading. It was at this point I noticed “the smell.” Pancake syrup? Hazelnut coffee? But from where? At first, I dismissed the smell as nothing more than the lotion I had placed on my dry hands earlier. After all, it couldn’t have been coming from outside, my windows were all shut. Maybe it was coming from one of the neighbors? My living room wasn’t an airtight vacuum chamber; I suppose anything (or, any smell) could drift in.

I began feeling drowsy; brushed my teeth, and went to bed. However, before going to sleep I noticed that “the smell” was still prevalent. In fact, “the smell” was actually more like a taste coming from the inside of my mouth. Maybe it was something I ate? Of course, I had already brushed my teeth, so it wasn’t my breath. Besides when did I have maple syrup? Perhaps, it was a lingering smell from my girlfriend who had been busy baking a cake earlier in our kitchen? I dismissed the smell as something relating to her cooking and tried again to get some shut-eye. However, I tossed and turned for sometime as the smell continued, and paranoia subsequently, seeped in.

Maybe there was a gas leak? Could it be dangerous? Might it be something coming from the basement downstairs? Should I call the fire department? Police? 311? For whatever reasons, my paranoia went away, and I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next day, New York was still here and I had forgotten all about the mysterious maple-syrup smell. At work, online news agencies were chattering about the indictment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby –nothing about a maple syrup smell. Of course, if I had picked up The New York Post or New York Newsday (publications I normally view as not worth the paper they’re printed on); then I would have read about “A peculiar and mysterious smell [that had] enveloped lower Manhattan for several hours last night, sparking dozens of 311 calls.” (New York Post) Apparently, people all over the five boroughs and even parts of Jersey City reported a “sweet smell.” The influx of similar calls prompted city officials to begin “running tests all night to try to figure out just what the smell was.” Unfortunately, “A spokesman [indicated that these] air samples aren't showing anything hazardous, [and that] the source of the smell is still not clear.” (NY-1)

The mysterious smell didn’t come up in any conversations I had with people at work or on the phone until Saturday night when my neighbor, Blythe, asked me if I “had heard anything about the maple syrup smell?” I hadn’t and, up to that point, had forgotten all about it since I didn’t see anything on the news or in the paper (of course, I wasn’t eagerly digging through the dailies). Of course, if I had picked up The New York Times that morning, I could’ve read about an odor “that raised vague worries about an attack deviously cloaked in the smell of grandma’s kitchen. It was so seductive that many New Yorkers found themselves behaving strangely, succumbing to urges usually kept under wraps. One woman, who never touches the stuff, said she was inspired to eat ice cream.”

Strange. Very strange, and certainly enough of a mystery (with not enough confirmed information) to inspire many conspiracy theorists with jittery post-9/11-nerves to question “what’s that smell?” Of course, no official reports from City Hall, NYPD, or the Department of Homeland Security have confirmed what was happening on Thursday night. My curiosity has certainly been peaked. Over the weekend, I asked a few people if they had also experienced the maple syrup incident. Most people agreed they smelt something strange on Thursday night and, of course, all had their own unique interpretations of what the smell might have been. My bartender and good friend, Orlando, poised the idea that perhaps “this was a test to see where a gas attack might spread if unleashed on New York.” His suggestion seems paranoid, but not outlandishly out of the question; especially, since authorities have yet to confirm (or at least make-up an excuse for) what the smell was.

I have tried to resist the urge to drift down the conspiracy rabbit hole. After all, it is often difficult to see a truth that is right in front of your face. We often construct fantastic and complex scenarios to explain mysterious, and perhaps, even banal phenomena. Moreover, something simple is often blown up to larger proportions and can, subsequently, be connected with other out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. For instance, by Anthony DePalma, writing in The New York Times, that the smell had caused “New Yorkers [to] behave strangely”; one observes a tendency to conflate the everyday with the absurd. Just because some lady on the Upper West Side decides to grab a pint of Ben Jerry’s, doesn’t mean a gas (capable of controlling the urges of New Yorkers) had been unleashed onto the city. With that said, we should never disregard the unexplainable; however, it’d be foolish to become obsessed with a mystery that could, in the end, be nothing. Of course, “the smell” is still unidentified and, for now, New Yorkers aren’t only keeping their eyes to the skies, but, their noses as well.

Afraid? Just go buy some ice cream.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Why I’ll Vote Republican (…just this once)

(Regretably) By Nicholas Allanach

In a little over two weeks, New Yorkers will likely reelect their incumbent Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg and—unless recent polls are incorrect, or something drastic occurs before November 8th—Democratic contender, Fernando Ferrer doesn’t have a chance of budging Bloomberg’s tight political grip on the city. Of course, what’s most baffling about the election is that this (apparently) bluest-of-blue strong holds appears so willing to vote red. Admittedly, Bloomberg is unlike most Republicans; in fact, if Bloomberg was (i.e. morally conservative, as well as, socially and economically inept) then Ferrer would at least have a fighting chance against the billionaire. However, instead of shooting effectively framed attack adds of Mike standing beside liberalism’s antithesis -“G.W” (as in the current heated race for New Jersey’s governor), Freddy, lacking ammo, must fall back on stump statements regarding “affordable housing” and “better education.” Ferrer claims, “This administration isn’t doing enough!” Unfortunately, this quote hasn't inspired New York’s jaded voters to change their minds.

But what if Ferrer is right? Maybe voters should reassess the way Bloomberg has run New York. Of course, this is a difficult argument to sell; after all, City Hall under Bloomberg’s leadership has been forced to meet a strict protocol of statistical accountability. Such shrewd tactics demand that all branches of city governance either “shape-up or ship-out.” Thus, Bloomberg’s strength is exemplified through an (almost) impeccable record; furthermore, he’s a likeable guy. In fact, Democrats are finding it difficult to find anything remotely askew with this, apparently, spotless politician. He has received the backing from labor unions, the gay and lesbian community, and N.A.R.A.L pro-choice. Why then am I (a registered Democrat) so conflicted by my decision to vote Bloomberg (other than being a Democrat)?

First of all, Bloomberg is an incredibly wealthy capitalist, which is, admittedly, more of a personal ideological gripe than a pressing concern for New York (“the capital of capital”) as a whole –or not. But even this argument is weak; after all, when the mayor was elected in 2001, he refused to accept the allocated annual salary and instead chose to be paid $1 for this opportunity. This is hardly the actions of a greedy man! Furthermore, Bloomberg is one of the top philanthropists in the country and is constantly contributing to charities and fundraisers. However, what’s bothersome about Bloomberg’s billions is that they allow him the ability to not only inundate the airwaves and streets with his message of “opportunity”, but also grants him the untouchable privilege of avoiding debates sponsored by the city’s campaign finance program. Bloomberg is scheduled to debate Ferrer on Oct. 30th and Nov. 1st, which will be interesting (especially since he avoided the first debate at The Apollo Theatre), but, regrettably, staged since the event won’t be held in front of a live audience but instead television cameras.

The other reason I’m a bit hesitant to reelect the mayor is because of his ties with the GOP. Respectfully, Bloomberg—as previously mentioned—seems to have no real connection with the Republicans except of course for purposes regarding obvious political opportunism. As most everyone knows, Bloomberg was a Democrat but changed party affiliation in 2001 after recognizing the crowded platform for the primaries. Of course, Bloomberg is still dogged by the ghost of the RNC, which he (despite some contestation on his part) did speak at and to. His contribution and welcoming of the RNC (not to mention the NYPD’s deplorable treatment of contained protesters) left some New Yorkers sour; especially, after the grievous results of November’s presidential election. However, despite my own party loyalties, I am unable to support the candidate it has put forth (if Anthony Weiner was still in the game, I would most certainly be electioneering for the Democrats and, subsequently, writing an entirely different article).

Accordingly, it seems silly for high-ranking Democrats such as Charles Shumer, Howard Dean, and Hilary Clinton to be backing Fernando Ferrer –except of course for (once again) purposes regarding political opportunism. One has to ask themselves, how much of this “backing” is merely an attempt to bolster an already embittered Democratic party? The emails I’ve received from John Kerry proclaim his support for Ferrer. However, Kerry’s pleas are written in a tone of desperation; as if we must back Ferrer because it is essential for the Democratic Party as a whole. Obviously, this line of thinking is destructive. Give me a real contender to stand beside and cease your pathetic plead for my vote!

Perhaps, the 2005 New York mayoral race can shed some light on the plight of the Democratic Party as a whole. After all, I agree with most everything Fernando Ferrer has done and believes in; what I don’t agree with is voting for a candidate based solely on party platform. Let a politician’s record (such as Ferrer’s commendable revitalization of the Bronx as borough president) and character (Ferrer is working-class and socially conscious) guide our decision as voters. Thus, the Democrats must stop saying “things can be better,” Democrats must show they are making things better and are in fact a better party. With that said, I would like to say that despite, Bloomberg’s record and impressive development plans, he must listen to his former party’s criticisms. Ferrer has stated time after time, “Mayor Bloomberg does not represent all New Yorkers.” This statement both alludes to Bloomberg’s connection with the ridiculously wealthy and to John Edward’s class dividing observation of there being “two America’s” (something most glaringly illustrated by Hurricane Katrina).

New York, like the rest of the country, is made up of both money hungry capitalists and a famished poor. How are we to bridge this divide? Ferrer has based his platform on this entirely, and his argument (that Bloomberg is making it more difficult for real New Yorkers to live here) is the number one reason I am hesitant to vote for Bloomberg. In fact, part of me is still—and probably will be right up until standing in that voting booth—torn between Bloomberg, because I think he has done a great job, and Ferrer, because a lot of me wants to really send a message to the rich. Of course, aren’t I sending a more effective message by voting for a socially responsible, accessible, and accountable mayor who has done a good job? If I’m a registered Democract that votes Republican, won’t my vote show the larger political apparatus that people are willing to support a candidate that represents the best interests of society as a whole?

With that said; what side am I on and is that side best for New York? At this point, I’ve reached a rather deplorable conclusion, which I dare say; I am willing to go back on if presented with a clearer and more convincing argument. My answer, (for now, and till Nov.8th) is that Bloomberg is best for New York. The reason I feel this way is that despite Fernando Ferrer’s concerns for the working-class and poor; he does not seem to have the power, connections, or ability to solve the problems he observes, which Bloomberg does. Fernando Ferrer speaks a truth that many (well-off) New Yorkers would prefer to not hear, that truth is that the wealthy are idealized and envied throughout the capitalists system and such wealth is often equated with virtue. It is difficult to not look at this election as the rich triumphing over the poor; however, this is the city we’ve built and the city we’ve built runs on business. By sending a message to the government that we respect Bloomberg for his system of accountability and effectively using the tools of business to make a better city then maybe others will begin realizing the strength of philanthropic deeds and genuine concern for all New Yorkers as well. Bloomberg has the tools and means to make the big changes that are necessary. Ferrer can only face an uphill battle in City Hall (if elected) and it is a battle this New Yorker, will, for now, avoid.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

No 'Totality' For A Polarized World

By Nicholas Allanach

Current polls indicate the American public is becoming fed-up with the war in Iraq. Of course, while there are certainly large numbers of staunch antiwar advocates, there is still a fair amount of war supporters. Certainly, being proud of the values and ideals that, apparently, characterize the “free and just” United States is commendable, it’s also only ignorant and pig-headed when taken too far. After all, absolute American exceptionalism doesn’t make any new friends; it only deters attempts at establishing a true global democracy that is fair for all. In fact, what the war supporters fail to realize is that the longer the United States “stays the course” the more isolated and ineffectual our role as super power becomes.

After the September 11th attacks, the United States was presented with an opportunity. America could either bravely and intelligently exert its hegemonic power through peaceful diplomacy or cowardly and ignorantly through sporadic and increased militaristic aggression. The Bush administration chose the former. What is most childish about this neo-conservative, pro-war argument is that it fully espouses American exceptionalism and feels the only way to effectively communicate its values is by violently subjecting the rest of the world to them. Such a perspective doesn’t position America as a part of the world, but as instead the misunderstood, yet superior, controller of it. Such unabashed and blind arrogance only isolates the United States by discrediting its cooperative and humanitarian position in the global community. If the US chose to “humbly accept its own vulnerability as [a] part of the world, enacting the punishment of those responsible [for 9/11] as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation” then, perhaps, we would already have captured Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, instead of provoking more like them. Nevertheless, changing this bullish attitude won’t alter the apparent (untruthful and/or conjured up) need to have invaded Iraq –we’re already there. However, altering this stubbornness will most certainly be a step in the right direction of truly advancing peace and democracy.

Over the past few months, despite the escalating body count, I have questioned my own support for the antiwar movement. But why? After all, I know I cannot adhere to the ridiculous blood-soaked wet dream of war proponents; yet, I am also unable to completely dive into the alternative “peacenik” movement without some hesitation. Of course, this creates a rather uncomfortable situation; especially, during a time when nobody wants to be seen as “sitting on the fence.” But let me make myself clear, I am not undecided. In fact, my big problem with war proponents is obvious: The United States is not an “innocent” bystander who was blindly attacked by a third world “evil” and must now “take the fight to the terrorists, so we don’t have to fight them at home.” Respectfully, we cannot fully rely on the deeper sociopolitical causes of Arab extremism either, which would, instead, blame the U.S. for “getting what it deserved.”

Writer Slavoj Zizek confronts this uncomfortable dichotomy in his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Zizek states, “The only possible solution is to reject this very opposition and to adopt both positions simultaneously [to achieve] totality: there is no choice between these two positions; each is one sided and false.” Of course, achieving “totality” is easier said then done; after all, such binary black/white tendencies have (throughout the history of Western civilization’s limited logic) divided and compartmentalized ideas and beliefs from each other for centuries. Such polarizations set ideas against each other and make it almost impossible to achieve a more complete truth. It is, of course, tough work to try and understand both “sides” of an issue; however, it should be necessary; especially when making large scale decisions like, say, invading a country.

Obviously, “totality” isn’t an attribute of imperial ambitions. In fact, domination doesn’t need understanding it only demands coercion which entails getting the most people “on your side.” President Bush has clearly indicated his administration’s inability of achieving “totality” by demarcating the world stage as separated into a duel “good vs. evil” and (infamous) “you’re either with us or against us” war mentality. Such thinking is not only dangerous (and limiting) but only further separates the US from a larger global community. Isolationism has often dominated America’s self perception as a mythical place that remains safe and secure from the economic, environmental, and social hardships inflicting other nations.

For instance, consider American responses to Hurricane Katrina. I recall the news being filled with quotes like, “Things like this aren’t supposed to happen here” or “This is the type of thing we’d expect to see in a third world country –not in the United States.” Although such an attitude is reactionary, it does illustrate an American tendency to not only see itself as a separate and/or elevated entity that doesn’t affect the world but—in this case of environmental disaster—shouldn’t be affected by the world either. It is as if America must consistently reaffirm itself as a sanctified and exceptional nation by even going so far as rejecting the reality of nature itself. Judging by the overall response to Hurricane Katrina, it is safe to say America is still unable to understand the lesson of September 11th. Such a lesson was—most likely—not in the minds of the hijackers; however, it frames the entire event and all subsequent ones like it and loudly declares –America is a part of the environmental, political, and social world. Get used to it damn it!

New World

by Nicholas Allanach

New York has been called an "island at the center of the world"; of course, by demarcating one place "the center" everywhere else, subsequently, becomes peripheral. This apparently insular city has also been called "the crossroads of the world", which paints an entirely different picture of the city as an interactive bustle of races and religions exchanging ideas and goods throughout the teeming streets and boroughs. This is the livelier of the two descriptions, but is no truer than the first. In fact, New York City is a paradox. While it remains a welcoming "crossroads" (i.e. "bring me your weak and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free") it is also a cold and distant "center". Glass towers, concrete, and constantly flowing streams of traffic, position New York as the proverbial financial, cultural, and political "center of the world." Such an identity must be maintained even when it is no longer true.

Much like the rest of the United States, New York is fueled by fantasy and myth. Admittedly, New York's power is for real; however, in this increasingly interconnected global environment, it is almost impossible to demarcate anything as a "center". At the turn of the century, New York was seen as a utopian "New World", where the possibilities and aspirations of those who settled here were wide-open, pragmatic, and opportunistic. New York is still inspired by such an imagination as it continues to defy the boundaries that restrict greater human endeavors. Thus, there are, most certainly, dreams and fantastic imaginings still associated with this mythic place. Many such dreams originate in the minds of those who live here; however, even more come from those who've never even set foot on the island. Despite these dreams, New York is no longer the "New World". In fact, the new "New World" is everywhere, it is interconnected, static, and has no center or crossroads.

What purpose can this city (and a writer living in it) then have in this "New World"?