Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

By Damian Ghigliotty and Matt Townsend

For years, savvy New York smokers avoided cigarette taxes and saved money by rolling their own.

But after President Barack Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance bill in February, the taxes on a pound of roll-your-own tobacco jumped more than 2,000 percent from $1.10 to $24.78 when the law went into effect on April 1.

“I was buying regular packs of cigarettes before the price went up to $9,” said 21-year-old Eric Reeves of Brooklyn. “Then I started rolling my own. Now that the price of rolling tobacco is going up as well, it’s hard to say which one will save me more money.”

City smokers already faced the highest cigarette taxes in the country at $5.26 per pack. Add a recent bump in the state’s non-cigarette tobacco tax and the price of roll-your-own, once a cheaper alternative to cigarettes, has doubled to as much as $10 a pouch within the five boroughs.

Now as New York delis, pharmacies and smoke shops have begun raising prices on roll-your-own tobacco, smokers are seeking out the last of the pre-tax inventory.

“They’re running all over the city looking for cheaper prices,” said Dhillon Singh, a sales clerk at Village Cigar in the West Village.

The federal government has taxed tobacco products since the early 1950’s, but roll-your-own tobacco was exempt until a 96-cent tax was imposed on every pound in 2000. The tax rose to $1.10 in 2002, and remained unchanged until congress increased it in April to mirror taxes on regular cigarettes, according to congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation. A typical pouch of roll-your-own tobacco makes 40 cigarettes and is now taxed at 5 cents per smoke, the same as a pack of Marlboros.

“These products have been perceived to be replacements for cigarettes,” said Darreyl Jayson, vice president for the Tobacco Merchants Association, a non-profit trade group. “The thought was that these should go up to an equal level.”

The state began taxing all non-cigarette tobacco, including roll-your-own, in 1989 at 15 percent of wholesale prices. On April 7, state lawmakers increased that tax from 37 percent to 46 percent as part of the budget. The state separately taxes a pack of cigarettes at $2.75 and the city adds another $1.50.

“The hope is that if New York can get the prices on alternative forms of tobacco up, we can discourage the next generations from picking up smoking,” said Julianne Hart, the New York State director of advocacy for the American Heart Association. “The tax revenue can be used for other important public health programs, which are desperately in need of revenue right now.”

As a result of the tax increases on all forms of tobacco, the Department of Health projects that 20,000 of the city’s 1 million smokers will quit.

“Before you were paying half as much and getting twice as many smokes, so rolling your own was the obvious choice,” said Philip Nicolazzo, 23, a Brooklyn resident who works for the U.S Census Bureau. ” I really don’t know what I’m going to do at this point. I might have to quit smoking.”

But die-hard smokers looking for a deal still have alternatives.

Joe Kearns, a 49-year-old homeless man, recently sat on a bench outside the Classic Smoke Shop in Greenwich Village and said a few weeks ago he would have been puffing on Top tobacco, one of cheapest brands of roll-your-own, for $2.50 a pouch. But now that it’s doubled to $5, he’d rather bum cigarettes and smoke thrown-away cigars he finds on the street.

“I’m not going to pay $5 for that,” he said.

Mohamed Khlid, owner of the Classic Smoke Shop for the past 10 years, said roll-your-own sales have fallen 75 percent since the tax increase.

“It’s not just 50 cents, it’s doubled,” Khlid said. “People are shocked.”

The tax increase has also forced some tobacco companies to discontinue roll-your-own products. The Seneca-Cayuga Tribal Tobacco Corporation, based in Grove Oklahoma, stopped selling its one-pound bags of Skydancer rolling tobacco after demand plummeted.

“The people just don’t want it anymore,” said Seneca general manager Steve McCormick. “What’s happening across the board is people are going back to cigarettes.”

Last night I played pool at a small bar in my neighborhood with a 27-year-old Tibetan named Jigman who is seeking asylum in New York City. He was upset about the riots taking place in Lhasa between Tibetans and the Chinese military, as well as a protest outside of the Chinese consulate in Manhattan that had been broken up by police that morning.

“The Chinese president has often said religion is a dangerous thing,” Jigman told me. “That might be true, but Buddhists are usually peaceful people. The Chinese provoke us.”

Since the riots started on Friday morning, 80 Tibetans have been killed and 72 injured, according to the Tibetan government in exile. And with fears that international scorn will jeopardize the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government has imposed a strict curfew in the area.

Despite Jigman’s frustration, every shot he made was nearly perfect; straight, angled or banked off the sides. By our third game, a stocky 26-year-old Marine named Josh with a fresh crew cut and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth joined in. A few beers later, Josh and I got into a conversation about the war in Iraq — which is nearing 4,000 American deaths and over $1.2 trillion in costs — and Josh told me, “We shouldn’t ever have gone over there in the first place.”

When I asked him why not, he spit some of the tobacco into a plastic bottle and looked at me to see if I was about to play devil’s advocate. I wasn’t. He told me when he had served as a sniper in Fallujah in 2004, he had fully supported Bush and the removal of Saddam Hussein, but looking back he realized how much of a mess the original plan was destined to be.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” he said. “At this point too many soldiers have died trying to fix the war.”

“You’re right,” said Jigman as Josh offered us both some chewing tobacco from his $2 Red Seal tin.

I declined and went outside for a smoke. Jigman told Josh it reminded him of a tobacco often sold in Nepal.

After the three of us got tired of pool, the Tibetan having won almost every game against the sniper and the journalist, we all had one more round of drinks and went our separate ways.

In my cynical mind it’s gotten increasingly harder for strangers to talk openly about politics and find any common ground, especially with so many conflicts reaching new heights at home and overseas. I guess Jigman and Josh felt far enough removed at a random dive bar in Woodside, Queens that they could speak about Tibet and Iraq with no less concern, only less apprehension about what they said.

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Photograph by Michael Hicks © 2007.
 

I’m suddenly reminded of Robert Oppenheimer and the movie Blade Runner when I think of all the ambitious scientists and researchers working on the next generation of advanced prosthesis. I can’t help wondering if they’re as detached from the purposes of their research as Oppenheimer was. Or as keenly in touch with the idea of a Cyborg culture as Philip K. Dick was. Or maybe both.

With the discovery of myoelectricity, which allows artificial limbs to be powered by the remaining nerves of muscles that once existed (a phantom limb put to practical use), bionic prosthesis has developed to the point where dismembered soldiers are now being urged to jump back into action after losing a leg or two—or an arm or two. And while it all might seem too science-fictionally implausible to picture on a grand scale, let’s say to tally benchmarks against casualties for once, so was the Atom Bomb before the world saw its effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s where the often forgotten past of World War II and the bleak fantasy of Philip K. Dick suddenly seem all too prevalent and real.

Thirty-one amputees, including Capt. David Rozelle, who lost his right leg above the knee, and Marine Sgt. Sean Wright, who lost both of his hands, have already returned to active duty. Rozelle is one of ten amputee soldiers to return to the battle field after surgery, and now helps architect the amputee program at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. Wright currently teaches martial arts to fellow Marines heading over to Iraq. Other amputees, including Army Specialist Max Ramsey, who lost his left leg above the knee; Army Sgt. Neil Duncan, who lost both of his legs entirely; and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge, who lost parts of both legs in different places, have appeared in the media alongside President Bush.

MSNBC reported on their website on June 28, 2006 that, “Despite a slight drizzle, Bush and Staff Sgt. Christian Bagge took a slow jog around a spongy track that circles the White House’s South Lawn. About halfway through their approximately half-mile run, Bush and Bagge paused briefly for reporters. ‘He ran the president into the ground, I might add,’ Bush said, as the two gripped hands in an emotional, lengthy shake. ‘But I’m proud of you. I’m proud of your strength, proud of your character.’”

The psychology behind the push for bionic prosthesis can be a bit deceiving at first glance; just like with Robert Oppenheimer and Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard. While amputee soldiers deserve unconditional praise for their bravery, regardless of whether or not they choose to return to active duty, the attention they are given is somewhat askew. Military doctors like Mark Heniser have come to find that amputees who suffer the loss of a limb later in their military careers are more likely to return to service. Amputees who suffer earlier are likely to take an honorable discharge and whatever benefits they can receive. While the Bush administration has celebrated both groups equally in the public eye, treating all amputees duly as heroes, if it weren’t for those who were willing to keep up the fight, the funding wouldn’t be there for the latter. Military prospect precludes scientific advancement.

And as long as the guilt of feeling obsolete exists within human nature, giving those in power the opportunity to exploit it, I won’t be surprised to see a unit of well-seasoned soldiers with one or more of their limbs replaced standing on the front lines. Right now is the first testing phases. The driving thought behind the Pentagon’s funding for advanced prosthesis is that if you can make a wounded solider feel whole again by throwing him or her back into action once, morale can never die — as long as body parts can be replaced. Now that’s scary. And the eight-year-old nerd inside of me is slumped over, depressed as hell, because the things we thought we’d never see always get exploited as soon as we get to see them.

 
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President Bush jogging with Walter Reed amputees Max Ramsey and Neil Duncan. Photograph taken from ‘The White House News & Policies Page.’

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Development along the Brooklyn Waterfront.
 

There’s not a neighborhood in the city that has ever stayed the same for more than a few generations. If they don’t get better, they get worse, but they always take on a new face after a certain amount of time.”

My friend Lee said this to me about four years ago, when I told him overdevelopment does more harm than good to the city. There I was sitting on the L train, reminiscing back to when DUMBO was an absolute no man’s land and Williamsburg was a pretty sub-par place to go drinking — back when New York seemed a bit more comfortable with itself — and somebody else had to rain on my pessimism by reminding me of a time before the time I remember, when Brooklyn Heights was a ghetto and Flatbush was an epicenter of commerce. Sure, taking the longer view always makes things easier to digest, but neighborhoods in New York City have stopped going down since 2002.

And why does that matter now?

Because suddenly, in the media’s eye at least, Mayor Bloomberg might conceivably run for president in 2008. And try as I often do these days, I’m still unable to disassociate New York’s wealthiest and most accomplished leader from all the overgrowth in the city as developers are given greater access to lower- and middle-class neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.

Of course, it’s not Bloomberg’s fault alone that the cost of living won’t stop rising, and while some New Yorkers have trouble noticing, it’s not only a local phenomena. Neither is overdevelopment, which might be inevitable in the long view. But apart from all the new people coming in and no longer going out, Bloomberg has certainly helped speed up the process a lot faster than it was moving before.

On the horizon, city planners are projecting: redevelopment of the Atlantic Yards, a revitalization of Coney Island, expansions for the Jacob K. Javits Center, further spreading of NYU facilities in the South Village and Columbia in Manhattanville, another convention center in Willets Point, new condos in Bed-Stuy, and the long sought after 2nd Avenue subway line.

Some of these initiatives are for the city’s benefit, some are ruination on the horizon, and others are for the most part innocuous. But when they all happen at the same point in time, a lot of New Yorkers will have to struggle to keep up, and City Hall, these days, seems incapable of not giving developers the green light. Hence the dozens of articles printed within the last few months in Time Out New York and umpteen other magazines about how underappreciated Queens and the Bronx are, and about how many little gems of culture they both hold.

And while the features that promote economic development might not come from the mayor’s office directly, they all carry Bloomberg’s invisible seal of approval. Ironically, most New Yorkers who live in Queens and the Bronx know that the best thing to appreciate about the “other boroughs” is how they haven’t become real estate hotbeds like all of Manhattan and the outer half of Brooklyn. Which causes me to wonder whether the mayor and his associates are simply projecting another million by 2030 or equally endorsing that amount.

The toughest question these days is when does development suddenly cross the line. Is it the misuse of eminent domain?

I’d say it’s when too many neighborhoods no longer have the capacity to change and New York becomes stuck one way for too like an overfed waterbug lying on its back. Bloomberg’s vision of the city has always been new developments and high-rises from the west end of Northern Manhattan (also known as Harlem) to the corners of every other borough, which admittedly has its ups and downs. But pace is key. As is affordable housing.

It might be hard for advocates of city development to notice, but the nicest neighborhoods in New York City got to where they are through gradual spurts. Like healthy adults who grew up properly; foolish fist fights and arguments to valuable lessons learned. DUMBO, on the other hand, is that unbelievably awkward kid in high school who started taking steroids, and Bedford Ave is the 30-something-year-old nerd who still tries to overcompensate for a late entry into hipness. So, yeah, that whole aspect of the Bloomberg legacy still makes skin crawl.

Or… as Lee would likely point out if I were reading this to him on the L train back in 2003… maybe I’m just being too nostalgic over everything old about New York these days. After all, the UN is estimating 3.3 billion people (half the world’s population) to live in cities by the end of next year and 5 billion by 2030, while apart from overzealous development plans, there’s not much else to criticize about Bloomberg’s incentives: going green, raising the standards for public education, dumping the Republican Party for political independence. Not to mention the fact that he’s incorruptible with or without affiliations. And 311 is the best thing for the general public’s protection since Giuliani stopped being mayor. Imagine that on a national level.

So… the question has been asked and everyone has an answer… “Should Bloomberg run for president in 2008?”

I would have to say I’m completely torn to say the least. That’s what happens when you take the personal view and the long view both at once.

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By Damian Ghigliotty

(Photo by Michael Hicks)

There have been enough arguments over the immigration debate post-2004 to make a pie chart look like a kaleidoscope. Every dispute from how unwanted immigrants (typically those from Central and South America) help our economy and sense of cultural diversity— bringing little crime with them —to arguments concerning overpopulation, language changes, and national security in post-9/11 America. Even the weighted statistic that 85% of current child predators are criminal immigrants. What interests me though is what motivates the different points that people, including members of the federal government, make, regardless of their actual stances.

Nina Bernstein, an immigration reporter for The New York Times, covered a local story on April 10th about a raid against a family of legal Ecuadorian immigrants in East Hampton by federal agents searching for one illegal immigrant, Patrizio Wilson Garcia, who was ordered to be deported back in 2003.

The Leon family’s story is one of several thousands that have been occurring around the country— especially in small suburbs near larger cities —increasingly since Bush proposed his 2004 immigration reform plan. The questions it raises now are not only how accepting we should be of illegal aliens in our country, but also what procedures our federal government is taking to find them. On a slightly more suggestive level, it brings up the question of whether or not illegal immigration takes precedence over crimes, such as domestic violence, murder and rape, committed by fellow American citizens.

Of the 600,000 fugitive immigrants being targeted by federal agents, which is about 5.4 percent of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, some, perhaps the majority, were convicted of serious offenses such as rape and murder. The rest were labeled as felons after they re-crossed the border having once been removed for minor infringements. However, Garcia’s only known offense was the divorce between him and his wife, Adriana Leon, which instantly made him an illegal alien in the United States. The rest of the Leon family is a three-generation immigrant household, where every member is a legal citizen by naturalization or birth.

Quoting Christopher Shanahan, the director of deportation and removal for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New York, Bernstein wrote that “unlike a criminal search warrant, which requires a judge to review the evidence and find probable cause for a search, the ‘administrative warrant’ used by immigration agents is approved only by the team’s supervisor – and is valid only with the consent of the occupants.”

“Valid with consent” translates to the fact that when federal agents appear at the suspected home of an illegal immigrant, they must first receive permission from one of the household members before they can enter. The grandmother of the Leon family ostensibly said “yes”, which gave Shanahan’s team the immediate go ahead. Perhaps Mrs. Leon is an informant for the FBI; but in all seriousness, restrictions on federal warrants for non-citizens are proven to be more liberal and less conscripted than the restrictions on warrants for suspected murderers, rapists, and crime organizers. The argument against that is that federal warrants for American criminals are restricted under the maxim “innocent until proven guilty”, while the 600,000 fugitive immigrants being targeted have already been proven guilty of illegal citizenship.

An interesting socio-economic factor behind the Garcia situation is that what happened on April 10th in East Hampton, a generally white, upper-middle class suburb, has been linked to long running complaints from neighbors about Leon family barbecues, where, as with most other Latin American parties, noisy outdoor games, loud music, and booty shaking can often be found. At the same time, those neighborhood complaints have led to over eighteen inspections by local code enforcers. Other common complaints about immigrant families around the U.S. include: sanitation, overcrowding (especially in the realm of education), language barriers, the deflation of property values, and the exploitation of social assistance.

It’s hard not to see the issue of legal citizenship as being a bit more culturally affected than our federal government is willing to admit. Would Mr. Garcia be as much of a priority if the Leon family lived in the middle of Sunset Park, Brooklyn? Doubtfully. Then again, to paraphrase something my father once told me, suburbs like East Hampton have their defining characteristics just as much as neighborhoods like Sunset Park. From that point of view, urbanization is no better or worse than gentrification. It just depends on your outlook and how unused to change you are.

 

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The Birth Of Apathy

Posted: April 16, 2007 in Education, History, Media, Music, Politics

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(Written in August, 2005) By Damian Ghigliotty

(Photo by Michael Hicks)

Robert Dylan Smith, a twenty-eight-year-old internet marketer living in Sacramento, epitomizes a body of America that continually shrugs its shoulders. Back in 1978, Smith’s parents choose the name Robert Dylan to instill a sense of righteousness in their future son—Janice in the event of a daughter. But, unlike his mother and father, who doggedly protested the Vietnam War, Smith has no interest in political activism. He sees himself as a regular, middle-class worker who likes to party with his friends, listen to Creed, and watch reality television. His one dream for the future, aside from buying a summer house on a marijuana grove, is to play as a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. At the same time, Smith casually admits that he lost his ability to throw after graduating high school, and only dreams about playing again because in his mind: most dreams are fantasies, unless you’re that guy that married Britney Spears. Fantasies aside, Smith happily sees himself in the near future living a peaceful, everyday life on the West Coast, and vows to move to Vancouver if the situation in Iraq ever calls for a return of the draft.

Having been raised in a liberal household, Robert Smith is fully aware of the problems occurring in and beyond America, but refuses to ever protest out of a fear of legal repercussions. On the other hand, he argues that America’s youth as a whole have become too discouraged from making any real efforts, since a few drops in the bucket won’t ever amount to anything. Ultimately though, Smith has no problem openly admitting that if he really cared like his parents, he would be doing something to make a change.

It’s far too easy to blame young Americans like Smith alone for our country’s overall lack of political interest, unlike forty years ago when everyone was prepared for the next big revolution. The main reason: We still put our undivided trust in what we see, hear and read in the media, just like a lot of our parents did back then. While our country’s general attitude towards war, race, homosexuality, religion and politics has shifted from decade to decade, the fact that most of us are conditioned to act and think a specific way remains constant. The biggest difference between the 1960’s and now is how we’ve become so comfortable ignoring issues that don’t affect us directly.

On a daily basis, we’re being pressed by our schools and home communities to think about the world’s problems only a trivial amount. By our parents and extended families even less. The largest bulk of our awareness lies in the hands of MTV, AOL, FOX and every other media conglomerate that appeals to teenagers and young adults. Just as in the late sixties America’s youth were inspired by artists like Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and the causes that gave birth to their views, today’s younger generations are being influenced by Nelly, Paris Hilton and Nike. This in turn transforms the idea of social activism into arbitrary, half-hearted movements; trends at best.

Why has Tibet been such a hot subject for young American activists over the past ten years? Not because the plight of the Tibetans is anymore important to the world than that of the Rwandans or Australia’s Aborigines, but because The Beastie Boys and other pop artists tell us that we need to urgently support Tibet first and foremost. And we follow without a second thought. Perhaps if they told us McDonalds was soon to be put out of business by the world’s mass vegan populations, the rest of our energy would go to saving America’s top fast food industry. The sad thing about such a thought is that regardless of how intelligent our country’s youth might be; intelligence becomes worthless when people choose not to think beyond their immediate surroundings. Just as dolphins are arguably as smart as humans, without the ability to organize movements on land, there’s only so much they can do to save the world. Or themselves.

One of the biggest social problems in America right now is that egotism and apathy are the ideas being spoken, sung, filmed and rapped about, and we gladly eat it up, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do for so long. Coincidentally, since 9/11 never have we been closer to the Red Scare of the fifties in terms of America struggling against an “invisible enemy.” Nor have we been closer to the Vietnam War in terms of giving up so many lives and resources to ensure “the world’s freedom.” Yet, instead of being urged by the media to educate ourselves and take a stance, we’re being pushed to look the other way. Or blindly join in on the fight.

Perhaps if the day to day programs we absorb began to spoon feed us the truth on what’s happening in the world– from Iraq, to Haiti, to Sudan, to North Korea –the average American wouldn’t be so indifferent. The underlying problem is that the average American isn’t properly trained in how to wade through channels, websites and pages of nonsense to get to the truth. And from 1965 to 2005, the amount of drivel in the media has increased tenfold. That’s why we now have large franchises producing Che Guevara shirts in Thailand, and people who consider themselves socially informed proudly wearing them. It’s also the reason why successful media icons can make dozens of statements about the condition of race and class in America, when poor teenagers are spending more money on Sean John jeans than they are on their weekly diets.

At the same time, it’s not our uninformed youth’s faults for following suit in these cases. Who can blame the ignorant when nobody’s making an effort to teach them? It’s also not our nation’s celebrities’ faults for getting paid to look informed, whether or not they truly are. The largest degree of fault lies with the media bigwigs, who determine what we watch, read, listen to, and purchase, for keeping us as distracted as possible in order to preserve their own interests. The rest lies with educated quasi-adults like Robert Smith, who are aware of the problem and do have the power to make a change, but repeatedly tell themselves that the bucket will always be half empty, no matter how many drops we add to it. If that were the case, all progress in America, from the Civil Rights Movement to Nixon’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, would be nothing but pure, random, dumb luck. And that’s pretty close to saying the generations before us accomplished no more than we do. Apathy then becomes complacency.

Until our country’s newest thinkers look at the bigger picture, apart from what writers, producers and celebrities tell us to fight for, activism will remain a raw commodity. Unfortunately, most commodities in the West sell at their appropriated values and the value of loose change is continually dropping. As much as major corporations would like to convince us that everything’s alright; that women in Somalia are partying harder than Courtney Love; that Palestine versus Israel isn’t nearly as important as Pepsi versus Coke; it’s our choice to buy into it all or question why we’ve become so apathetic.

[Robert Dylan Smith is a fictitious character]