SMITHEREENS: Reflections on Bits & Pieces

Gar Smith
Friday October 25, 2019 - 04:54:00 PM

The World's Real Superheroes

Step aside, Avengers. Stand down, X-Men. Time out, Guardians of the Galaxy. I've recently seen an array of films that reveal these Hollywood fantasies are no match for the real heroes of our actual modern world. And who might these awesome and redoubtable people be? Answer: the planet's growing population of refugees and migrants.

Think about it. Hollywood excels at (and profits by) inundating us with the sensory overload of blockbuster films that push a singular, disquieting message—i.e., that the majority of the human population is powerless and surrounded by threats that can only be addressed by the intervention of all-powerful super-human saviors.

These saviors don't just have Big Screen names like Superman and Wolverine: they also populate our TV screens in the persona of police investigators, SWAT cops, firefighters, FBI agents, SEAL team members, intelligence operatives, and big-city doctors. Again, the messaging is always the same: (1) You are surrounded by concealed weapons, public threats, deranged sociopaths, foreign-and-local terrorists, and plagues and (2) Only specially trained, physically endowed, shrewd-and-woke, badge-wearing Soldiers of the State can protect you.

You want to honor a real superhero? Focus your attention on any one of the tens of thousands of refugees who stagger out of Africa to risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean on ramshackle boats. 

Consider the men and women driven from their homes in Central and South America by violence, climate crisis, and the impact of US sanctions—forced to embark on a journey measured in months and unknown miles, carrying children in their arms and their meager possessions stuffed into bags on their backs. 

These women, men, and children are some of the world's real superheroes. 

Watching Real Superheroes on the Screen 

A new image of what it takes to be a superhero is already being communicated around the world—in documentary film festivals that fill their screens with images of real people forced to deal with adversity and the threat of obliteration—all without the intervention of all-powerful outside forces. 

In a previous column, I described Midnight Traveler, a hand-made documentary that covered one Syrian family's three-year, 3,500-mile exodus to find safety outside a war-zone. 

Recently, the New Parkway Cinema in Oakland, screened We Are Not Princesses, one of the many powerful documentaries in the Arab Film Festival, "the longest running independent festival of its kind in North America." 

The film recounts the survival tales of several women forced to flee from Syria to refugee camps in Lebanon. Some lost relatives. Some lost children. All had lost their homes. 

One woman had walked ten-miles in a single day, desperately trudging to reach a border. She had to endure the march in the shoes she was wearing when she was forced to flee—six-inch, stiletto-healed boots. 

Another survivor recalled her bed-ridden child (diagnosed with leukemia), beginning to bleed from nose and mouth as dozens of bombs exploded around her apartment. She wound up carrying her child to a hospital, in the middle of the night, down rubble-strewn streets lit only by the flash of exploding bombs and mortars (an experience captured in a harrowing animated re-enactment that you briefly glimpse at minute 1:42 in the trailer below.) 

Displaced in Beirut, the women find solace and support preparing to stage a performance of Sophocles' Antigone—the tale of another woman who risked her life to honor a family lost to the chaos of a civil war. 


Mosul 980 

A few weeks ago, UC Berkeley's Arab Studies Center screened a number of selections from the Arab Film Festival. One of them was director Ali Mohammed Saeed's Mosul 980, a short film about a young Yazidi woman, one of 3,000 Yazidis kidnapped by the Islamic State in 2014 and sold as sex slaves. In the film, this solitary female fighter—armed and frightened— struggles to survive as she darts over the rubble of buildings and dead bodies. Her plight is made even more stark by the setting—the scenes filmed inside the devastated city are nothing short of apocalyptic. Here is a brief sample from this disturbing film: 


After the on-campus screenings, I approached one of the Festival organizers to express my amazement that a film crew was able to shoot this film in what appeared to be an active war zone. I asked how long ago Mosul 980 was filmed, expecting to hear that it had been filmed between 2015-17. His answer shocked me. "The film was shot in 2018." 

It turns out that large sections of war-torn Mosul have never been rebuilt. More examples of the war's lasting devastation (which claimed scores of mosques and irreplaceable ancient buildings) can be glimpsed in this short behind-the-scenes video. 


Billboard Breeds Discontent 

Ellen Lee Zhou, a pro-Trump conservative running an underdog race for SF mayor, has been called out for a campaign billboard targeting SF Mayor London Breed. Zhou's billboard (now removed) had been condemned for being "racist" but I don't think that's accurate. 


The billboard famously portrayed the mayor as a corrupt, laid-back powerbroker profiting off homelessness and human-trafficking. But where's the racist stereotype here? Is it a stereotype that African-Americans are rich and powerful cigar-smoking manipulators of public policy? Nope. Are African-Americans profiting off "slavery and human-trafficking"? Au contraire. African-Americans have been the victims of slavery and human trafficking. (Footnote: In a Trump-like error, the word "trafficking" was misspelled on Zhou's billboard.) 

Despite the controversy, neither the media nor Zhou have managed to explain the suggestion that the major's office is somehow personally profiting off homelessness and "sex trafficking." Instead, Mayor Breed soon will be overseeing a $9.3 million state grant to provide housing and social services to survivors of sex trafficking. 

So, while the billboard wasn't racist, it was offensive, sexist, and libelous. 

In her defense, Zhou replied: “When people say I am racist, how can I be racist? I’m Chinese." 

To which one might respond: "Tell that to the Uighurs currently confined in re-education camps in Xinjiang." 

Counting the Trillion Dollar Costs of Nuclear Weapons 


On October 24, a team of anti-nuclear activists gathered outside the United Nations building in New York where the General Assembly is holding a week-long meeting on nuclear disarmament. The activists hope to draw attention to the staggering trillion-dollar cost of the continuing nuclear arms race—by counting out the cost in symbolic million-dollar bills, one bill at a time. The accounting is expected to continue uninterrupted for seven long days and seven long nights. 

Similar "countings" are taking place at four locations in New Mexico (the "nuclear nexus" of Washington's atomic weapons industry) with the largest demonstration converging outside the Los Alamos National Laboratory, America's nuclear bomb lab. 

According to the Move the Nuclear Weapons Money International Campaign, $280 billion of the money designated to create a new generation of world-ending weapons could, instead, feed all of our planet's 780 million malnourished people for the next ten years while $200 billion could build as many as 100 million houses for the homeless. For more information, contact the Basel Peace Office, Beyond Nuclear International, and Divest from the War Machine

Racist Language 

Racism seems to be embedded in our language as well as our history. Take the word "denigrate." It stems from the Latin verb denigrare, which means to "blacken" someone's reputation. Other definitions include: to treat or represent someone or something as lacking in value or importance, to belittle, disparage, sully, or defame. 

The word first entered the English language in the 16th century, a period corresponding to the introduction and expansion of Europe's African slave trade. Each year, the Oxford English Dictionary announces new words that have been added to the English vocabulary. Maybe it's time to consider retiring a word or two. 

The Extinction Rebellion Sees Red 


What a concept! The London contingent of the Extinction Rebellion—a feisty international save-the-climate movement—recently rented a fire truck and used it to spray a sidewalk and a government building with blood-red liquid. 

In a moment of online reflection, I noted that "looking at that ruddy photo of the Blood Protest, I'm thinking CODEPINK must be green with envy." 

This prompted the following response from Michael Dietrick, MD: "Extending [this] colorful metaphor: Thanks to green-lighting this purple prose action, I think it’s a black day for the non-greens, especially around the White Cliffs of Dover." 

The Lunacy of NATO 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently complained that NATO does not support his regime and must make a choice between Ankara and the Kurdish people. As Erdogan put it: 

“We are members of NATO, and the charter of the bloc has Article 5 (urging the response of all members of the alliance when one of them is under attack). We are under the threat of a terrorist organisation. And in accordance with Article 5, NATO should be with us. Are you with us or with terrorists? There has been no exact answer.” 

Ironically, Turkey already has The Bomb, thanks to the US, which has entrusted Ankara to store 50 US B-61 nuclear bombs at its Incirlic Air Base (a base that briefly slipped from Erdogan's control during an attempted military coup in 2016). 

Now that Erdogan has now found common cause with Russia (NATO's putative arch-enemy) Turkey may be on the verge of building its own nuclear arsenal. As Erdogan puts it: "Some countries have nuclear missiles but the West insists we cannot have them. This is unacceptable." 

What's really unacceptable is the fact that any country still possesses nuclear arms. 

Balancing the Books on Balance of Nature 

Over the years, KCBS Radio has hosted a number of quirky advertisers. (One of my favorite ads began with a woman complaining: "I'm a child psychologist but my son just slammed the door in my face and I don't know what to do." She then recommends a service guaranteed to solve the problem "within minutes." But she never explains what's involved. This left me to speculate a service involving a 300-pound guy named "Vinny" who shows up on your doorstep after a phone call and threatens to "slap some sense" into the young delinquent.) 

Recently, I've been listening to KCBS ads for Balance of Nature Fruits™. 

People are being asked to shell out $70 a month to chew on shipments of "fruit and veggie treats" delivered by mail. Instead of buying fresh, organic produce in local stores, listeners are being told these mail-sourced munchies can cure a variety of disabilities and diseases. 

The radio testimonials include voices of elderly people claiming the product has improved their physical stamina, brainpower, and sexual performance. One elderly lady tells KCBS listeners that she's returned to riding her horses after using the product "and my husband has his wife back!" In another broadcast testimonial, an elderly lady tearfully declares: "I feel like you are my family! You really care about us!" 

Balance of Nature claims "these specific fruits were carefully selected for their combined effectiveness with each other and the Balance of Nature Veggies." Ingredients include: Aloe Vera, Apple, Banana, Blueberry, Cherry, Cranberry, Grape, Grapefruit, Lemon, Mango, Orange, Papaya, Pineapple, Raspberry, Strawberry, Tomato; Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrot, Cauliflower, Cayenne Pepper, Celery Stalk, Garlic, Kale, Onion, Shiitake Mushroom, Soy Bean, Spinach, Wheat Grass, Yam, and Zucchini. 

The company's webpage assures potential customers: "You could snack on them all day and not be concerned with overdosage because it is 100% produce." Need another reason to sign up? How about this one: "You can also swallow them with water." 

Unfortunately, according to Truth in Advertising, " Balance of Nature has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau." 

A visit to the BBB website reveals a long list of complaints against the product and its billing department. Here's one sample. 

Having received no noticeable benefits from this product, and feeling like I have been duped, I cancelled further deliveries and asked for a refund of my last payment, which was for my "free" month. I offered to return the shipment unopened at my expense. They refused to authorize a return or a refund. I disputed the payment to my credit card company. 

At my age I should have known better. Their advertisements offering "testimonials" from people who claim fantastical results should have been the obvious clue. If this product was half as good as what they claim, they would not have to advertise at all . . . . Before buying this product, ask yourself why don't they offer a money-back guarantee if it is so good? 

How to Save 20% on Metered Parking 

Here's a tip for major savings on a minor expense. 

The next time you reach into your pocket for coins to feed into a parking meter, avoid the quarters. In the Downtown area, a quarter only gets you 4 minutes of parking. Meanwhile, a nickel gets you a full minute while a single dime buys you two. Instead of paying a quarter for four minutes of curb time, you can get the same coverage with four nickels or two dimes.