Friday, October 16, 2009

New York missive no 61 - Taking Amartya Sen's seat

New York is the man on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street saying his evening prayers on a little rug laid out by the food cart where he sells kebabs, a torrent of workers and shoppers passing him by.


At a discussion on human rights and detention last week at Columbia University with Sir Nigel Rodley, Scott Horton, Peter Rosenblum and others, David Fathi of Human Rights Watch began his talk with some statistics. In the US, 2.4 million people are in prison on a given day. That’s 762 people per 100,000. By comparison, in the UK 152 people per 100,000 are in prison, in Canada 116, and in Japan, 63.

During the questions I asked about the implications of the increasing privatization of the prison system. Rodley first emphasized that any level of privatization does not absolve the state of its responsibilities. Then he added that “all my instincts tell me that outsourcing of this fundamental role of government is to be avoided.”

Fathi concisely summarized the main problems with prison privatization. The profit-motive means private centers will always be looking for ways to minimize costs, including by reducing staff and training – hence it’s not surprising that a higher number of abuses take place in private than in state-run facilities. There is a serious lack of transparency around private prison firms – for example they are not usually subject to federal and state freedom of information legislation. And the “consumer choice” argument – that private systems improve standards because customers can reject products or services for better ones – doesn’t exactly apply to prisoners.


On a rather lighter, or at least more entertaining note than the detention discussion, I heard Pedro Almodóvar holding forth for a couple of hours last Saturday at the Lincoln Center. He was talking about his “history of cinema” with the New York Film Festival Director Richard Peña, interspersing the conversation with clips from his and his mentors’ films.

The audience was in fits of laughter half the time but cruelty did still crop up. “Legitimate cruelty is unfortunately part of our work” (as directors), he said. The first he clip he showed was from Cassavetes’ Opening Night, when Gena Rowlands, playing an actress called Myrtle, is blind-drunk before the curtain raises on the opening night of the play she’s starring in, Second Woman. She’s stumbling along the backstage corridors, collapsing from time to time on the floor. The camera sways and crashes with her. The play’s Director, acted by Ben Gazzara, walks slowly behind her, watching. He does not lift a finger to help and gets angry when another character tries to. That scene epitomized, Almodóvar said, the way in which directors, despite being “everything” to their actors – father, shrink, teacher, confidante, lover etc. – ultimately have to leave the actors to work through their challenges and problems alone. And I’ve worked with plenty of actresses whose problems are much bigger than their talent, he added.


That was quite a weekend of New York it’s-all-at-your-fingertips culture. The previous night L and I saw the Peruvian criollo / música negra singer Eva Ayllón at Queens Theater in the park (right out in Flushing, in the park next to the eerie huge steel globe donated by US Steel for the World Fair).

Ayllón’s compatriot, the singer Zambo Cavero, had died earlier that day and she was clearly emotionally distraught by it. Her singing was beautiful but at one point she staggered offstage leaving the cajón and guitar players to their own improvised devices until she remerged. She’s getting on in years and god knows how she held out through the second two-hour concert that was starting soon after ours ended.

The concert made me more excited than I already am about going back to Lima in December, ten years after I lived there. Seems I’m susceptible to falling in love with cities.


Well I never. I’m so often looking for adventure “elsewhere”, restlessly wondering what lies just round the corner, or in another part of town, or on the other side of the planet. And a miraculous adventure turns up right here, close to me as it can be. To be continued...


I embarrassed myself at the Carnegie Council the other day. Amartya Sen was giving a breakfast talk on his new book The Idea of Justice. I arrived a bit late, so the room was already full of people sitting at round white-clothed tables laden with orange juice and croissants, and Sen was in full flow. The woman who showed me in to the room whispered, “there’s one spare chair you can sit in, over there by the podium”. Right under Sen’s nose. I had no choice but to stride out through the room to the table next to him. Once there I spotted another vacant chair, less directly in front of him. So as subtly as possible I sat in it, started listening attentively, and attempted to ignore the (mostly elderly) disapproving faces staring at me.

Then I realized that I was sitting in Sen’s chair. Cheeky upstart with the guts to sit in the Nobel prize-winning economist’s seat, I could feel those faces thinking. Oh well, I was stuck. Luckily the event closed with a Q&A and Sen didn’t need to reclaim his seat. And at least I was in a good position to apologise to him afterwards – he was most gracious.

In his talk, Sen mentioned that the Idea of Justice draws on Adam Smith’s book the Theory of Moral Sentiments, written 17 years before Wealth of Nations and marking its 250th anniversary this year. Smith talked about the dangers that parochialism poses to justice. In other words the fact that confining discussion of a particular issue within a small society can lead to dangerous parochialism, and in turn, to injustice. Instead what is needed is scrutiny from a distance. Or to quote Smith, "The eyes of the rest of mankind must be invoked to understand whether a punishment appears equitable." This scrutiny said Sen, “may be useful for practices as different as the stoning of adulterous women in Taliban Afghanistan; selective abortion of female fetuses in China, Korea, and parts of India; and plentiful use of capital punishment in China, or for that matter the United States….”

He continued:

"It is important, however, to recognize that to listen to distant voices, which is part of Adam Smith’s exercise of invoking the 'impartial spectator' in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, does not require us to be respectful of every argument that may come from abroad. That would be absurd. We may reject a great many of the proposed arguments, sometimes even all of them, and yet there would remain particular cases of reasoning that could make us reconsider our own understandings and views linked with the experiences and conventions entrenched in a given country or culture.

The interdependence of reasoning is part of the ground on which Martin Luther King Jr. said in 'The Letter from Birmingham Jail' in April 1963: 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"


I’ve had a rarely, for me, un-exploratory week off work – a combination of working in cafés on my book proposal (so work of sorts) and pottering around the city. What bliss to be out and about in the city on weekdays. Especially in West Village, which can be heaving at the weekends yet is remarkably tranquil during the week. And elsewhere: on Wednesday I went up to the top North East corner of Central Park and walked down to Columbus Circle – the whole top section of the park was an oasis of calm.

The café-sitting has meant eavesdropping some interesting conversations. For example the guy this morning, talking on his phone: “How many bones do you get for that?...And how big are the bones? Two inches, three inches across? Ok, well get one of the big ones and one of the small ones. Oh ok. Well get a mixed bag of…ah, how much are those? How much? Nah…just get the bones…And like, a pumpkin to put them in.”

The pumpkin bit broke the spell somewhat…implying the whole thing had something to do with Halloween.


Just before and after paying avid attention to that conversation I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times article on conceptual art, by Dennis Dutton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. It made a lot of sense, I thought. “Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why…” he said. The point being that conceptual art – Damien Hirst’s preserved sharks or his new medicine cabinets for example – depends “not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist.” So it’s unlikely to withstand the test of time: future generations are unlikely to “get” it and if they do, it will no doubt seem rather dated, more a “historical curiosity” than a work of art.