Letters for the week of February 11-17, 2004 

How can you sleep at night? How could you hail Monster? How did you miss Wushu West? How can SYDA justify its claims?

"The Qigong Kid," Feature, 1/28

Regressing to the Middle Ages
What's hardest to believe about Justin Berton's wretched article is that, in seven pages, Berton couldn't find space for even a single quote from a skeptic. You'd expect at least a token interview with James Randi or Robert Park, or a fleeting mention of double-blind tests or the similar scams that have defrauded countless people before. Instead, Berton simply writes as though Galileo and Darwin had never lived -- explaining without irony that "[i]n Eastern philosophical circles, skepticism or ideological challenge can be viewed as negative energy, and are therefore unwelcome." How can you print this and sleep at night?
Scott Aaronson, Berkeley

"Ten Minutes in Five Days," Theater, 1/28

Don't discount the fifth day
Great article on the PlayGround short-play program. Unfortunately, the title is wrong. Jim Kleinmann is a fine director and program director, but at arithmetic, not so good. He always tells the audience we have five days to write a play. Actually, we have four -- from Friday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon -- making the accomplishment of writers like Evelyn Pine all that much more impressive.

This last month, four days just wasn't enough for me. A fifth might have done it!
Martha Soukup, San Francisco

"Wessiiiide," Close 2 tha Edge, 1/21

That's not a mixed CD
First of all, I wanted to thank you for giving West Coast Bay Area DJs (and mix-tape DJs) some light. Your article on T-Ski was excellent. I agree with him faithfully on issues such as the bay getting no love outside E-40 and Too $hort. Also, I strongly agree with him on the MP3 DJs who make it hard for DJs such as myself to do the real meaning of a mix tape (CD). It strips the culture and it strips the art form.

Also to build on what T-Ski was saying, I hate when there are cats out on the block claiming they got mixed CDs, but it's just a bunch of songs on compilation. Mix CDs are for DJs, not for bootleggers. But the people buying the CDs don't know the knowledge of it until a DJ tells them, "Hey, that's not a mixed CD, they didn't use two turntables," so I just wanted to commend you. Let's keep it Yay Area, and since KMEL doesn't support its local audience thanks to the Clear Channel Network slave-wave grippers, us Bay Area DJs are the only channel to Bay Area talent. And it's getting bigger, so we are on our way with or without commercial radio airplay.
DJ Tek-Neek, Oakland

"American Girl," Film, 12/31

Monstrous
Motivated by Gregory Weinkauf's glowing review, I saw Monster and I was disappointed to say the least. Director Patty Jenkins shamelessly rips off Boys Don't Cry in several scenes (the seduction at the skating rink is the most glaring example), and Charlize Theron's much-acclaimed "breakthrough performance" is nowhere near the stellar performance that Hilary Swank delivered in Boys Don't Cry. It may be a "breakthrough" for Theron, but it's little more than unrelenting anger for two hours -- and that is something that is not that difficult to do. Ask anyone who's gone through acting school or has experience in theatrical productions; acting angry and lashing out at the world is one of the easiest choices to make onstage.

There's no depth at all to Theron's performance, whereas Hilary Swank gave you a complete character with whom you could empathize at every moment. When she fell in love, it was tender and convincing. The "love" between Theron and Christina Ricci begins and ends as a superficial interaction between two extremely dysfunctional people.

In spite of the trauma that the character portrayed by Theron underwent in her past, at no time did I feel sympathy for her. There was almost no character development that would help to "explain" why she chose to descend down a psychopathic vortex. Even in her attempts at becoming "normal," as in her job interview at a lawyer's office, she was so out of control I wondered why the attorney talked to her for as long as he did.

In Boys Don't Cry, as in Shakespeare, Brandon Teena's death occurs because of the repression of the society she lived in. It was an unavoidable fate outside of her control. Toward the end of Monster, when Theron kills a man who is not a trick but sincerely wants to help her by paying for her food and shelter, I only wanted her apprehended so the madness would stop.

Monster could be used as simple-minded propaganda for the Religious Right, confirming a suspicion that lesbians prey upon innocent young women and desire to murder all men.

I stayed to watch the final credits roll up -- witnessing yet another rip-off from Boys Don't Cry -- and saw that Charlize Theron was one of the producers of the movie. A self-styled way to get an Oscar nomination?
Mike Palmer, Berkeley

"Complete Guide to Martial Arts in the East Bay," Resolution Guide, 1/21

Woe is wushu
Your self-proclaimed "complete" guide to martial arts in the East Bay omitted mention of the school of one of the foremost proponents of Chinese wushu in the world, Ms. Patti Li's Wushu West (WushuWest.com). It has been in operation for more than a decade in Berkeley and has trained numerous grand champions during that time. Patti Li (Hao Zhi Hwa) is a former teammate of Jet Li on the Beijing Wushu Team and holds many honors and records from her time as a world-class competitor in China.

Thank you for correcting this unfortunate oversight.
Gary Nathan Gartenberg, Berkeley

"How To Live Your Overseas Dream," Resolution Guide, 1/21

You're about seven years late
I would like to make a correction to your story, "How to Live Your Overseas Dream," which seemed to be somewhat of a review of the book of the same title. The book was published in 2002, and since Stefano DeZerega's tenure (which ended, I believe, in 1996 or 1997), JustAct has gone through two executive directors. I am the current ED.

JustAct's mission has evolved as well, from being an overseas development organization to one that serves for leadership development for working-class youth of color. The following is our mission statement: "JustAct supports the leadership development of grassroots youth groups by providing experiences and opportunities for personal development that will further strengthen their justice work in their communities in the global context."

JustAct is currently working with various youth organizations, particularly in the SF Bay Area, to assist them to make the local-to-global connection to their work. JustAct collaborates with organizations that work with youth in the fight for justice despite being heavily impacted by the ill-effects of globalization and neoliberalism.

We recently returned from Mumbai, India, with two youth from local youth organizations -- Conscious Roots and Schools Not Jails Coalition -- where we participated in the World Social Forum and Mumbai Resistance. We will be conducting a report-back event on February 26. You are more than welcome to attend and learn about how many youth are working locally (many volunteering their time) to fight for justice in their communities and make the connections to the global issues.
Liz Suk, JustAct, San Francisco

"A Guide to Overseas Volunteering," Resolution Guide, 1/21

Credit where credit is due
I read your article with great interest partly because you mention my organization, Food First, and partly because Food First also has an alternatives to the Peace Corps guidebook called, appropriately enough, Alternatives to the Peace Corps. I appreciate your mention. Having been in the Bay Area for 28 years, Food First is among the Bay Area's oldest social activist organizations and its former staff members have spun off many other notable organizations, among them Global Exchange, Pesticide Action Network, and Neighbor to Neighbor.

However, there is one correction I'd like to bring to your attention. While Joseph Collins did indeed found Food First, he did so with Frances Moore Lappe, whose book, Diet for a Small Planet, provided much of the original funding for Food First.
Nick Parker, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Oakland

"Pursuing SYDA," Bottom Feeder, 1/14

SYDA's tangled history
I would like to thank you for your fair and balanced article. Given SYDA's culture of secrecy, well-oiled PR machine, considerable resources for suppressing dissent, and the ex-SYDA people's difficulty in obtaining hard evidence, this cannot have been easy.

The credibility of SYDA and its guru is based on two things -- the lineage and the ability to give shaktipat, or transmission of spiritual energy. Both are myths built up by SYDA. In fact, shaktipat has no more spiritual significance than, say, an LSD trip, and like LSD, the experience and long-term effects are highly dependent on both the mind of the subject and the context in which it is taken. Like LSD, shaktipat may give the subject intense, colorful experiences, or it can drive vulnerable people insane. In fact the only real difference is in the price -- SYDA now charges $500 for shaktipat via a two-day intensive program.

The lineage that SYDA claims "goes back to Shiva" in fact only goes back two successions to an acknowledged Indian saint known as Nityananda. In fact, Nityananda claimed no guru and named no successor. Muktananda's claims to be his successor were entirely self-proclaimed and unverified.

Gurumayi's own succession is almost as dubious. Muktananda first named Gurumayi's brother Subash/Swami Nityananda as successor in an elaborate ceremony. Much later, SYDA began referring to Gurumayi as "cosuccessor," something unprecedented in Indian tradition. No official announcement was ever made. It has been alleged that Gurumayi had blackmailed Muktananda over his sexual improprieties. About half of SYDA's swamis resigned, unable to accept that either Gurumayi or her brother were in any way enlightened.

Three years after Muktananda's death, Swami Nityananda resigned as guru after being kidnapped and beaten by Gurumayi and her people. He admitted numerous sexual liaisons, including two with female swamis. In fact, sexual activity was rampant amongst SYDA's supposedly celibate swamis, and Gurumayi's chief lieutenant, George Afif, was convicted of statutory rape of a minor. Not only did SYDA not fire him, it provided him with lawyers and settled other cases out of court. George's authority was unchallenged until 1994, when he mysteriously disappeared after SYDA was fined for massive environmental damage in Sullivan County, New York.

Gurumayi is not unlike Michael Jackson, with a strange childhood, a distorted sense of reality and self-importance, and an inordinate need for her devotees' adoration.

SYDA likes to present a pleasant and benign face to the public. In fact, it is an insidious cult intent on bleeding its innocent and well-intentioned devotees of their money. However, the hardest thing facing devotees who have left is how to cope with the deepest sense of spiritual betrayal.
Gorakh Silvester, Auckland, New Zealand

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