Photo of Day # 85 
Tuesday, December 23, 2008, 12:50 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
As Christmas approaches it is a great time to sit with family and enjoy some downtime. It is also a great opportunity to explore how other cultures celebrate the holiday. Almost none is as unique at The Netherlands who have the familiar face of Santa Claus but also a less recognizable fellow named Zwarte Piet ("Black Pete") as we learn from Der Spiegel.

Not so funny. Cologne 2007 © Damaso Reyes

“Perpetually in tow is Sinterklaas' slave, Black Pete. At least that's what he was called from his 19th century origins up until the 1950s, when a new focus on cultural sensitivity led to a slight watering down of a tradition that was slowly subjected to the rigors of political correctness. In the new tale told to children each year, that pesky black face paint on Zwarte Piet's face comes from soot collected as Santa's helper wriggles down chimneys to deposit branches in the shoes of badly behaving kids or to help deliver presents from Sinterklaas for the good ones. Some whitewashers of this racist little tale also like to say he's a chimney sweep. "It's just an excuse used by people because they don't like to be reminded of the dark nature of Black Pete," says Walraven.

“The arrival of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is an event covered live on national television and the festivities are celebrated across the country. For several weeks, dozens of Zwarte Pieten and Sinterklaases can be seen crisscrossing the lowlands country, culminating on Dec. 5 with the exchange of gifts. Throughout the celebrations, you can buy Black Pete cakes, plush toys, balloons, chocolates and any number of knickknacks.”

I’m all for cultural diversity but this is one tradition that I think will begin to fade as the Dutch begin to accept the growing diversity of their nation not as a threat but as a blessing. That, of course, will take some time but in another two or three generations Black Pete will either fade to the background or be seen as a harmless cultural anachronism.

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Photo of the Day #84 
Thursday, December 18, 2008, 12:21 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
When it comes to reversing social views on discrimination the process is a marathon, not a sprint. Discrimination against gays and lesbians is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry, at least when it comes to the law as Der Spiegal tells us.

“Last summer the European Commission presented draft guidelines concerning equal treatment. The guidelines stipulated "equal treatment ... irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation." Currently, legislation is only applicable to the job market and the workplace, but not beyond.

“But the new guidelines mean, for instance, that a bank issuing a loan would be forbidden from engaging in anti-gay discrimination. Consequently, gay organizations are "very happy" with the proposed legislation, says Björn van Roozendaal, international policy officer at the Dutch gay rights organization COC.

“Nevertheless, COC and the international gay rights umbrella organization ILGA Europe is lobbying for a revision of the text, arguing that it does very little to address issues relating to family law. "There is even a risk that the act is a step backwards," warns Evelyne Paradis of ILGA Europe.

“Paradis is "very worried" about a passage which explicitly excludes "national laws on marital or family status and reproductive rights" from the anti-discrimination regulations. The reason is that marriage and family law are not dealt with on a Europe-wide level. "Europe cannot force member states to introduce gay marriage," says Paradis. "The directive is not intended to do that and we accept that."

Dance for your right to love. Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

One day I am sure that the European Union will get their act together and legalize gay marriage, just as the U.S. Supreme Court will no doubt do. The problem is will Europeans in more conservative countries see this as yet another heavy handed attempt at taking away their sovereignty? In America it took the federal courts to allow mix race marriages in many of our southern states. No doubt these laws would still be on the books in some places if the federal government had not intervened.

Everyone has the right to love and be happy…

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Photo of the Day #83 
Monday, December 15, 2008, 12:21 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Our friends in Amsterdam seem to be losing their cool. After years of tolerance and leniency the government has announced that it will be downsizing the red light district and scaling back on the famous coffee shops where you can get a joint to go with your macchiato as we learn from the Guardian.

The end is nigh. © Damaso Reyes

“As part of a major 'clean-up' of the city centre, the local authorities yesterday unveiled plans to close half of the brothels and the little coffee shops where cannabis can be bought and smoked, prompting warnings that they will cost the city dear as visitors head elsewhere.

“Although prostitution has been legal for eight years, and possession of small amounts of drugs has long been tolerated, the latest moves mark an escalation in the culture wars in a country that many of its people believe has become too liberal.

“At the heart of the new initiative is the city's drive against the organized crime that it claims gravitates to the areas with high concentrations of 'coffee shops', brothels and the 'windows' where women advertise themselves.”

I think this is more about targeting the easy “problem” instead of the hard one. By driving this kind of activity underground I think that it will only make crime worse. But when it comes to getting “results” closing some brothels and coffee shops is the no sweat solution…

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Damaso: 30 Death: 0 
Thursday, December 11, 2008, 13:08 - Personal, Commentary
Happy Birthday to ME!

Mmmmm…cake…. © Damaso Reyes

Today is my 30th birthday!
I know it is hard for some of you to believe, but it’s true! If you feel like giving me a present, feel free to consult my wish list. Even better, you can help my project by making a tax deductible donation.

It feels odd to no longer be the youngest person in the room. Of course this hasn’t been the case for a long time but psychologically turning 30 is a big deal for someone who has always thought of themselves as being very young. Of course I still am very young but I think people start to treat you differently one you start your third decade.

Fortunately all of my friends have told me that they enjoy their 30’s much more than their 20’s so I have something to look forward to! For me the next decade is really about finishing this project and reaching a level of success that allows me to do the work that is most important to me. I feel like I spent the last ten years trying to prove myself; the next ten will be about satisfying myself…

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Photo of the Day #82 
Wednesday, December 10, 2008, 12:56 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Every time I turn around it seems like my profession is coming under assault. In many ways this is good, the rise of digital cultural and the ubiquity of information will turn out to be the best things to happen to journalism in a century. At the same time the corporate world which has profited so much from the hard work of those on the ground is looking to exploit us even further as the U.K.’s Guardian tells us.

Smile! Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

“Germany's bestselling newspaper is looking to expand without the expense of actually hiring new reporters.

“Bild has joined up with discount supermarket chain Lidl to sell a basic digital camera to a legion of citizen journalists, who the tabloid hopes will contribute images to its coverage.
"We can't cover everything," said Michael Paustian, a Bild managing editor. "We think it is an advance for journalism."

“The pocket-sized camera has 2GB of memory, can shoot still pictures and video, and costs €69.99 (£60). It comes with software and a USB port that allows "reader-reporters" to upload content directly to editors who will be assigned to review it for publication.”

The story goes on to tell us that the paper may pay for the best photos it receives. Personally I don’t think this project will last long. Professional journalists have professional standards that they should, though don’t allows, adhere to. Citizen journalists have no such obligation is it won’t be long before a fake makes its way into this newspaper.

More importantly it is a sign of where corporate media wants to go. Professional and meaningful journalism costs money and the corporations increasingly don’t want to pay. Where this leaves people like me, I can’t say….

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Photo of the Day #81 
Monday, December 8, 2008, 13:47 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
There’s trouble happening in Greece and it’s not going away. After police shot a teenage boy dead in the streets of Athens last Saturday night riots broke out first in the capital and have now spread throughout the peninsula as we learn from the International Herald Tribune.

May 1st, 2007 in Berlin © Damaso Reyes

“The riots began hours after the boy was shot during a confrontation between the police and youths in the Exarchia neighborhood of central Athens, a district of bars, bookshops and restaurants where many young leftists live and socialize.

“The youths regularly clash with the police, whom they view as symbols of the establishment. In most cases, the confrontations are relatively contained and end at the gates of universities with the young people holding off the police with gasoline bombs, rocks and slingshots.

“But the speed with which the riots spread over the weekend — and the ferocity of the protests — seemed to take the government by surprise. The police nationwide were not put on alert until Sunday night, only after fires had destroyed dozens of businesses, including a high-end department store in central Athens.

“Throughout the clashes, rioters used text messages and Web sites to organize and communicate their responses to the police and other security forces.”

Events like this do not happen out of the blue. Clearly there has been a great deal of animosity building up among the Greek youth for many years for this to have spread so quickly and so far. How the government chooses to deal with the incident and its aftermath may well decide if it stays in power.

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Photo of the Day #80 
Friday, December 5, 2008, 13:31 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
You can say a lot about the Swiss but they are hardly predictable, which is why I like them so much! There was an important vote over the weekend about drug decriminalization and the vote was split as the Associated Press reports.

Playing in the snow. © Damaso Reyes

“The world's most comprehensive legalized heroin program has become permanent, with overwhelming approval from Swiss voters who simultaneously rejected the decriminalization of marijuana.

“The heroin program, started in 1994, is offered in 23 centers across Switzerland. It has helped eliminate scenes of large groups of drug users injecting drugs openly in parks that marred Swiss cities in the 1980s and 1990s and is credited with reducing crime and improving the health and daily lives of addicts.

“Sixty-eight percent of the 2.26 million Swiss voters casting ballots Sunday approved making the heroin program permanent.
“By contrast, around 63.2 percent of voters voted against the marijuana proposal, which was based on a separate citizens' initiative to decriminalize the consumption of marijuana and growing the plant for personal use.”

It’s interesting to me that heroin is less stigmatized than marijuana but an important first step has been made when it comes to harder drugs. Of all the things that increasingly cash strapped governments can spend money on the War on Drugs is perhaps the least wise. It will be interesting to see if any other European countries take a cue from our Swiss friends.

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Photo of the Day #79 
Wednesday, December 3, 2008, 12:28 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Greenland recently voted for more independence from their colonial overlords the Danish. The last vestiges of European colonialism are falling by the wayside as the world’s largest island begins the process which may lead toward independence.

The Power of the Polls. © Damaso Reyes

“On Tuesday night, fireworks burst over Greenland's capital city of Nuuk, as election results showed that an overwhelming majority of residents of the isolated island voted for increased independence from its former colonial ruler, Denmark. The final result was no surprise -- polls projected correctly that 75 percent would vote in favor of the proposal -- but residents were no less happy to celebrate the historic achievement.

“Prime Minister Hans Enoksen has said that the vote is a stepping stone on the way to full autonomy that would end over three centuries without sovereignty and give Greenland's Inuit population a presence on the world stage for the first time.”
Der Spiegel reported.
There is little doubt that even if Greenland becomes independent that it will retain close ties to Denmark and Europe. Nevertheless it is an important moment for the residents of an island who were colonized the same year Americans threw off the Imperial yoke – 1776.

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Photo of the Day #78 
Monday, December 1, 2008, 13:24 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
When talking about racism in Europe there is rarely an opportunity for optimism but a recent report from researchers at Leipzig University and reported by our friends at Spiegel Online conclude that racism and xenophobia in Germany have actually declined over the past few years. As always there is cause for concern…

Not really a solution… Vienna 2008 © Damaso Reyes

“The final report, called "Movement in the Middle," found a decline in all categories overall -- with some alarming exceptions.

“In "hostility to foreigners" the leading states were Saxony-Anhalt (39.3 percent), Bavaria (39.1 percent) and Brandenburg (34.6 percent). Those states also happened to lead in "chauvinism" (Bavaria 30.4 percent, Brandenburg 24.5 percent), but it was Bavaria that distinguished itself in the "anti-Semitism" category, with 16.6 percent, above Thüringia and Baden-Württemberg (12.9 and 13.3 percent respectively).”

So progress is being made in Germany but clearly there is still room for improvement. The challenge will only become greater over time as the need for immigrant labor will continue to grow. How Germany and Europe meets this challenge will ultimately define whether or not Europe succeeds in the 21st century.

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Photo of the Day #77 
Friday, November 28, 2008, 12:55 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
I hope all my American friends had a happy Thanksgiving, I know I did. In Amsterdam they aren’t so happy as we learn from Reuters

Legalize it! The Hague 2005 © Damaso Reyes

“The Netherlands will ban the sale and cultivation of all hallucinogenic "magic" mushrooms from next week, the latest target of a country seeking to shed its "anything goes" image.

“The Dutch government proposed the ban in April, citing the dangerous behavioural effects of magic mushrooms following the death of a French teenager who jumped from an Amsterdam bridge in 2007 after consuming the hallucinogenic fungus.”

Of course if this were really the problem the best thing to ban would be alcohol. The number of drunk driving and accidental deaths, not to mention embarrassing late night phone calls, exceed the number of mushroom related deaths by far. Of course it is just a matter of perspective and by making magic mushrooms illegal it is doubtful that demand will all of a sudden end. They will simply become more expensive and help fuel crime. For decades The Netherlands was a leader in harm reduction and decriminalization and it is sad to see them take a step backwards. Hopefully they will look closely at the results of this new ban and if the data warrants it repeal it down the line. But as we all know it is easier to pass laws than to repeal them.

In other news I will be posting only three days a week for the month of December. Not only is it my birthday on the 11th, but numerous holidays, not to mention grant application deadlines, will keep me pretty busy. I hope you still swing by every one in a while!

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Photo of the Day #76 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008, 16:18 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
We have concentrated a lot on racism and discrimination in Western Europe but of course the problem is not so neatly contained as we learn from our good friends at Der Spiegel online in an article about anti-immigrant violence in the Czech Republic.

The writing is STILL on the wall. Barcelona 2005.

“Czech police battled hundreds of far-right rioters armed with an array of weapons north of Prague on Monday in a successful attempt to prevent them from entering a Roma neighborhood.

“The riot took place in the northern town of Litvinov, which lies 110 kilometers (68 miles) northwest of Prague. The estimated 500 members of the far-right Workers' Party had gathered for a march in the town before suddenly turning off the approved route toward Janov, a section of the town with a large Roma community.”

Racism and violence against foreigners continues in many E.U. member states and the governments that have the worst problems need to do the most. What really needs to happen is an open and honest debate about the pros and cons of immigration. It’s a hard conversation to have but the leaders of the European Union need to step up to the plate, and soon…

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Photo of the Day #75 
Monday, November 24, 2008, 15:07 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
All of you Francophiles who have long worried about English dominating Europe, especially its culture need not fear. As an article in the New York Times explained that a new digital library of European Culture has emerged and the French seem to have conquered it!

Vive la France! Paris 2008.

“But when the new site, called Europeana, begins life on Thursday, more than half of its two million items will come from just one of the 27 countries in the European Union: France.

"So comprehensive is France’s cultural dominance over this cyberspace outpost that other countries are having their own history written for them — in French, of course.”

So intense was the demand that the servers crashed within a day of the site opening (check back in December). But what this tells me is that the diversity that makes Europe so special is alive and well even as the Union grows stronger…

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Photo of the Day #74 
Wednesday, November 19, 2008, 13:48 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
Official reports are usually pretty boring and don’t tell us much interesting but the European Commission has come out with a recent one that the International Herald Tribune tells us supports the idea that immigrants are good for Western European Economies.

Waiting for acceptance… Berlin 2006

“Despite heavy currents of migration among East Europeans over the past decade, their increased presence in Western countries has done virtually nothing to alter local job prospects or wages, according to a European Union report on Tuesday.
As a result, those nations that still restrict workers from Eastern Europe should abandon those curbs, the European Commission said.

The report essentially concluded that worries that the "Polish plumber" would displace West European jobs were ill founded.
In fact, the report said, migration "contributed significantly to overall economic growth and employment expansion in the EU." The report even suggested that some Eastern nations had paid a heavier price in terms of brain drain and social upheaval than Western nations who received an influx. In Poland, for example, people talk of the "EU orphan," or child brought up by relatives because both parents are working abroad,”
Stephen Castle writes.

This backs up an idea that Frau Bock, the director of an NGO that helps immigrants and asylum seekers in Vienna told me. She explained that people don’t give up their lives back home to come to Austria for no good reason. They seek a better life and desperately seek to become part of the society to which they have emigrated. But old prejudices die hard and there are still far too many people in Europe who see immigration as a threat, even when all evidence points to the contrary.

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In Memoriam: Mark Ferguson 1959-2008 
Monday, November 17, 2008, 14:17 - Personal, Commentary
Sorry that I haven’t been around for the past week but my very good friend Mark Ferguson died last week after a battle with cancer. He will be greatly missed and my thoughts are with his family.

Mark in Action! Wheaton Village 2006 © Damaso Reyes

We met ten years ago when I was still a student at NYU. Needing to complete some elective credits I decided to try my hand at glass blowing and fell in love. After taking a few classes I was offered the chance to become a teaching assistant and one of the instructors I helped was Mark. I helped teach a number of classes with him and we became good friends over the years. His sense of humor and endless curiosity about the world are the things I will miss the most. His kindness and humility are the traits I will most try to emulate.

Mark at Sleepy Hollow 2008 © Damaso Reyes

I have very few close friends and Mark was one of the oldest and dearest. I will miss going with him to the Russian and Turkish Baths on a cold Sunday morning. I will miss having Thai food with his wife and children. I will miss his smile and how he never failed to play Devil’s advocate. He was patient and kind, two qualities the world needs more of.

Hayden and Mark Brooklyn 2007 © Damaso Reyes

During his illness he never gave up; never complained about his lot in life and even accepted help, something difficult for such a strong and independent man. If we could all live the way that he died we would be remembered well.

During the past few months I had a chance to spend a lot of time with Mark. Every other week I would pick him up from chemotherapy and when he was feeling up to it we hung out watching movies or even going for a walk. I remember wandering very slowly through the Village looking for a store that sold walking sticks. We never found what we were looking for but I remember his determination even in the face of death. As hard as it was to see him weaken over the past few months I was so happy that I got to spend the time with him that I did. I only wish it had been more.

Mark, Leah, Eleanor and Hayden in Brooklyn 2008 © Damaso Reyes

Mark, I love you and will think about you often. Take care…

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Photo of the Day #73 
Tuesday, November 11, 2008, 16:07 - Commentary, Photo of the Day
As we discussed yesterday there have been all kinds of reactions to Obama’s election. In an interesting story in The Guardian we get to hear from Trevor Phillips head of the U.K.’s equality watchdog.

Shout it out! London 2005 © Damaso Reyes

"If Barack Obama had lived here I would be very surprised if even somebody as brilliant as him would have been able to break through the institutional stranglehold that there is on power within the Labour party."

Europe has to come to terms with its minorities, not as an inconvenient problem that won’t go away but as an important part of society that has a great deal to offer. That certainly means tacking institutional and societal racism. But it also means a frank and open discussion about how immigration is changing the face of European society. We have to address people’s fears, both the real and the irrational and find a way to try to bring people together because despite the fondest wishes of some on the right they ain’t goin’ home…

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