Friday, November 11, 2016

Liberal Kitsch

I've been spending a lot of time on Facebook and reading newspapers online trying to adjust to our new reality. I am petrified about everything: Trump's cabinet, a Republican government, Giuliani (the worst of the worst, and then some), nuclear codes, global warming, the alt-right, racist violence, school bullying, spineless Democrats, etc.
Though I don't have any, I'm very worried about the children. Imagine the powerlessness of children who witness such results and are supposed to continue trusting and obeying the adults who make such terrible decisions.
I am also suffering from echo chamber fatigue. It is amazing to me how social media (Facebook, Twitter) amplifies and distorts our sense that we are among like-minded citizens, all clamoring for the same thing and no one else can hear us. I think I know one person who may be a Trump sympathizer, and he hides it. One person among 800 "friends" on Facebook.
And I am also disturbed and deeply annoyed by some reactions on the liberal side.
As always happens in moments of crisis, the easiest shorthand for expressing ourselves tends to come wrapped in pat, sentimental empty gestures. Instant sainthood is bestowed (to yourself, by yourself) by changing your avatar or wearing some sort of symbol of solidarity with the nightmare du jour. This is (still) a free country and knock yourselves out, but this does not work for me. I don't take well to sentimentality.
I hope I do not offend my well-meaning friends who feel the same way I do about Trump, but choose to express themselves differently. Calls for togetherness, prayer and compassion may be what is needed; they don't do much for me. I find some of the most impassioned exhortations for solidarity easy to preach from the comfort of our devices, but not as easy to follow through. And their capital sin: they're corny.
It's liberal kitsch.
For instance, that safety pin symbol. Nice sentiment; by all means wear it, but I am not going to wear a safety pin in order to demonstrate my self-serving, self-righteous moral superiority. Instead, and I sure hope it doesn't come to pass, I will try to intervene if I see bigoted attacks in action. In fact, I shared a useful primer on how to do that on, where else, Facebook.
I have been on the receiving end of people saying idiotic and hateful things about Jews, and sometimes Mexicans more than once. It always feels like a kick in the gut, sucks the air right out of you, makes your knees go weak. I used to kind of let it go, or deflate it with a joke, or be too rattled to put a stop to it. Sometimes I politely disagreed. But ever since a Mexican student told me after 9/11 that Jews who worked at the Twin Towers had called each other the night before in order to save their own skin, I decided that I will not tolerate politely this kind of bullshit anymore. This applies to all hateful rhetoric.

I am happy to march against Trump. I am happy to do whatever it takes to pressure this new government to respect human dignity and not destroy the world, but when people say #notmypresident, I have to part company with them. Imagine for a second if Hillary had won and Trump supporters came up with #notmypresident. Liberals would collapse in fits of outrage.
I beg you all to grow up. Hillary won the popular vote, NOT BY A LANDSLIDE. Trump won the Electoral College by a wide margin. He won legitimately, and democracy means that we accept the result. We may not accept the man, his policies, or his party and we should protest and do everything in our power to counter and oppose their influence. They don't have consensus and they should be reminded of it every second of their lives. But we were aghast when Trump intimated that he would not concede, and now we are acting like him?
We need to make our voices heard, but let's be tough and smart, like Harry Reid. Let's hope the Democrats will grow a spine and some cojones and make it as hard for these people to govern as they did for Obama these last 8 years.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

I Know What Peña Nieto Was Thinking

In which I will attempt to surmise what Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was "thinking" when he decided to invite Donald Trump to Mexico.

Disconnected from reality by his own infatuation with power and surrounded by fawning yes men, all EPN could think of was how to reverse his precipitous freefall in popularity polls.
How could he make the Mexican people stop arguing about his very recent college plagiarism scandal? How could he make them forget the new $2 million condo in Miami used by his wife, real estate hoarder and ex-telenovela star, Angélica Rivera, a house that is connected AGAIN to a construction company that has been awarded big projects by her husband's government?
How to make them forget their tsuris with the recent devaluation of the peso, or the horrific insecurity and violence all over the country, or the 43 massacred students at the beginning of his mandate that still no one has been found accountable for? How to stop Mexicans from deploring and relentlessly mocking his obvious lack of presidential stature, and his incompetence?

Reflecting that he needs to recover his mojo, a simple idea arises in his little mind (if not in the mind of some sibilant advisor):
"Who do Mexicans hate more than me?"
He didn't have to look very far.
"Bingo! I'm going to read señor Donald Trump the riot act. Hell, I'm gonna lay down the law to the guy I compared to Mussolini and Hitler, right here in our country. That'll show that bunch of ingrates, the Mexican people, who's their daddy. I will go down in history as the guy who stood up to Donald Trump."

Alas, yesterday Peña Nieto went down in history as the guy who went down on Donald Trump.

In one fell swoop, as many Mexican commentators have lamented, he did what no one had been able to do yet: he made Trump look presidential, made his cockamamie idea of a wall a feasible notion, he legitimized his racist rhetoric and treated him like a head of state. If the invitation in itself was not humiliation enough, Peña Nieto got totally played and humiliated by Trump, the superhuman troll, who then came back to Arizona to a triumphant rally where he espoused his "immigration policy", which is nothing but the dangerous racial scapegoating of a demagogue.
Peña Nieto, other than perhaps privately dying of shame at having lost his shriveled manhood to the human Cheeto, will suffer no real consequences. As per the Mexican political system, he is enshrined in power for 6 years, since there is no reelection (two long years to go),  during which he, his vulgar wife and his corrupt cronies will continue trading on their shady deals and their violent contempt for their country. Then he will vanish into the sunset like the rest of all the other bad presidents we've had (most of them from his party, the P.R.I.), yet another forgotten blemish in our history. There will be potholed streets with his name in sleepy towns empty of Mexicans who will be found in the US looking for dignity.

I'm not as flummoxed as some by the logic of Mexican political thinking, because, in essence, it is very simple. It goes something like this:

"The Mexican people are idiot infants that are better off not knowing the truth. We have always lied and talked down to them and pretended that we govern, when in fact, all we do is steal and take long (six-year) baths of intoxicating power. We have always staged this dog and pony show that they innocently call "democracy", and pontificated with meaningless, highfaluting words, communicating nothing true and nothing essential.
In fact, we're a bunch of deeply corrupt cynics who only care about fattening our bank accounts and safeguarding our uncontested, untouched, magical impunity. We steadfastly refuse to work for the improvement of our country, let alone reform its putrid institutions, which we deliberately keep inefficient, bureaucratized, moth-ridden and bloated, so we can continue the status quo.
We conspire with the rich, to whom we give monopolistic powers so they can prop us up, whether they are drug cartels, the richest man in the world, or privately owned media monopolies. We buy the votes of the poor with free sandwiches and sodas. We don't give a flying fuck about the smart, hard-working people who love this country and have truly good ideas to make it better. We just smother everything in bureaucracy and impediments.
We deliberately keep people in poverty and ignorance so that they don't get any ideas. Through our brilliance at entrenching corruption at almost every level of social interaction, we have created a nation ruled by distrust. We must admit, though, that despite the fact that almost everything we do conspires against progress and against greatness, Mexicans somehow still manage to be productive and creative. Imagine what they could do without us."

This visit is no different. Like all their other farces, this is pretend statesmanship that is not fit to belong to a second rate circus, just like the president's guest.

Which brings us to the uncanny parallels between Trump and the current Mexican President:

• Both are playing pretend at being presidential
• Both have been irresponsibly propped up by vastly corrupt and incompetent political parties.
• Both are constitutionally incapable of true leadership, let alone statesmanship.
• Both are crooks.
• Both inherited their power from their families (Trump financially, and Peña Nieto politically).
• Both are uneducated, anti-intellectual and married to uneducated, flashy floozies (one steals speeches, the other traffics in houses).
• Both have had more than one wife, and children by several.
• Both have unsavory friends. (For Trump, see Christie, Chris; Manafort, Paul et al. For Peña see Castillo, Alfredo).
• Both have ridiculous hair, though Trump wins this contest hands down.

So this little nightmare scenario we witnessed yesterday is nothing but two impostors getting together to convince people that they are real.

Finally, this is what I imagine transpired behind closed doors at their meeting:

Nice hair!
Let me cut to the chase: My wife wants an apartment in a Trump Tower. Any Trump Tower will do. We'll pay for the wall if you make it happen.
Deal! Believe me, you're gonna be very happy. It's gonna be yuge.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Trump: A Disqualifying Event

The pathetic spectacle to which we are hostage right now as a country - having to endure a presidential candidate who is mentally unfit for office, is not a coincidence. It is the direct result of eight years of Republican Party policies. They courted the fringe, abandoned every pretense of service to the American people, made President Obama's job hell, did whatever it took to cater to corporate interests even in the face of unspeakable atrocities (NRA) and care about nothing except power. Their cravenness makes Frank and Claire Underwood look like Mother Theresa.
The Republicans made this lice-infested bed, and now we all have to lie on it. We are now the laughing stock (if not the waking nightmare) of the world. But here we are. That Hillary Clinton, whether you like her or not, has to campaign against this carnival barker  in her historic opportunity to become the first female president of the United States, is sad and unfair. This shameful humiliation is the sole responsibility of the Republican Party. The only consolation is to watch them self-destruct and slide deeper into indignity, absurdity, and shamelessness as they try to contain the demons they've unleashed: besides Trump's unbridled lunacy, the worse evils of xenophobia, racism, violence, divisiveness, and hatred.
My only consolation is knowing that anyone who is remotely associated with, and pandering to, Trump has soiled their reputations forever. The nefarious Rudolph Giuliani, Chris Christie; any Republican that has stood by and encouraged this to happen is a coward and will live in infamy for eternity.
But what kind of delusion are they under? It is barely understandable how any sentient being can support such a fake conman, regardless of how desperate they are to vote against their own self-interest, blinded by his simplistic bombast, his fake hair, fake tan and fake money. But career politicians who should know better? What in God's green earth is in it for them? Cabinet posts? Shady business deals? A lifetime supply of Trump steaks? Is their resentment at the legacy of a twice-elected Black president so pernicious as to aim to dismantle the entire nation? A legacy that is all the more admirable considering that they did everything in their power to thwart it.
Make no mistake: a lot of this particular descent into madness is the result of racism. Therefore, it must sting even more deeply to watch the Obamas sail into history with dignity and grace, having achieved some monumental changes like Obamacare and gay marriage. I think history will reciprocate. When Giuliani and Christie are relegated to the forgotten clown corner of the circus tent, the Obama presidency will be remembered as one of the greatest in history, his shortcomings notwithstanding.

On the one hand, Trump is a gift to the Democrats; they can't possibly lose this election as things stand right now (although one fears that they are entirely capable of doing so. Just look at Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her crew).
On the other hand, the presidential election should be between two feasible candidates. It took Trump to encourage Russia to spy on Clinton for pundits to scream that this is a disqualifying event, when everything he has done from day one should have disqualified him from the job long ago. It's like living in an alternate reality where reason, common sense, decency and integrity do not exist. The Republicans attribute everything to spin. "He was joking", "she didn't steal the speech". This deliberate denial of reality by the right is frightening.

I assume someone will write the definitive history of how this happened to us. It seems like we blinked and woke up in the middle of this nightmare. Let this be an eye-opener to politicians on both sides of the aisle. This is what happens by ignoring the reality of the vast majority of people in this country, who struggle and dream of a standard of living that doesn't exist anymore. This is what happens when, by inaction and cynicism they encourage the existence of an uneducated nation who gets their world view from reality shows and talk radio instead of a robust public education.

It's in the hands of the American people to save our own country, even the world, from disaster. This time, it means trouncing Trump so overwhelmingly that he becomes, in his parlance, a yuge loser, the biggest loser of all time.  If you need to hold your nose because you are a conservative, or a Bernie supporter, or you just hate Hillary's guts, then do it. But sitting this one out because you are apolitical, or too ideologically pure, is not an option. And voting for Trump or any third party is suicidal.
Trump must be destroyed, and the only safe way to do it is by voting for Hillary Clinton. So register to vote, whatever your persuasion, and let's make sure Trump gets nowhere near the White House.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Donald Trump, Or Panic in the Streets.

Only events that spark the utmost consternation can make the Grande Enchilada come out of her lair. To wit: the mass hysteria surrounding the ascendancy of human Cheeto and giant dingleberry, Donald Trump, and his possible election to the Presidency of the United States.
The headlines from the (liberal) media run from astounded exclamations that the biggest search on Google is how to move to Canada, to dire comparisons to the Nazis, the rise of fascism in America, the fall of the American Empire, Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns, etc.
People on social media, when not dying of horrific glee over Ted Cruz's flying goobers, are tearing their hair out in astonishment and fear. It's understandable. No one in their right mind can fathom how we got to this place. Oh, wait. Yes, we can!
This is nothing but the end result of decades of deliberate policies by the Republican party to court and feed the most extreme right wing factions and to fight anything resembling common sense, sound governance and social cohesion (gun control, climate change, education, infrastructure, etc). For decades, they have devoted themselves to obstructing any and all paths to progress, have impeded President Obama to do his job in a racist, disrespectful and contemptible way and they have bowed down to the insanity of a lunatic fringe whose ranks they have helped swell, at the expense of their own survival. I am convinced that part of their hysteria stems from their inability to cope with the reality of a Black president. Besides that, they should have known they were sealing their fate when they invited an ignorant malignancy like Sarah Palin to run for Vice-president. This very well may have cost them the election. But instead of learning their lesson, they doubled down on their contempt for the citizenry. An abysmal disconnect exists between their ideology and most of American society, but they act like the fringe are the majority.
The Republicans only have themselves to blame and they deserve everything that has befallen them and that is yet to come. The rise of Donald Trump is a direct consequence of their willful descent into xenophobia, racism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, contempt for society, venality and stupidity. They allowed this clown to run on their platform, probably thinking that it was better than if he ran as an independent, and then they were unable to control him. They stood by, happy about all the buzz they were getting, and now it's too late to stop him. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are now trying to reverse the damage with speeches about human decency and the party of Lincoln. Guess what? It's too fucking late! Where were they when Trump started uttering his idiotic, yet mediagenic, racist statements? Now the Republican party has neo-Nazis and the KKK in their corner.
To be honest, my schadenfreude is preventing me from running for the hills. I am almost hoping he wins: I want to witness with my own eyes the precipitous collapse of the American empire.  It's like being alive at the time of Caligula.
Will Trump win? Only if reasonable, decent people from both ends of the political spectrum fail to do their duty to vote against him. This country must unite against him. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats are not bothering to show up in big numbers at the primaries. Apparently, if they don't get homegrown heroes like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton or Albert Gore, they won't give the time of day to two candidates from the North. I certainly hope that Trump's results will scare Democrats enough to haul their asses to the rest of the primaries, whoever they decide to vote for. In the case of the Republican party, the options are so frightening that there is nothing to hope for.
Only in America presidential elections resemble a sports' season (in hell). There are arcane rules to consider and nationwide tournaments to win or lose. So everyone is losing sleep over the odds of which one of the Democratic candidates is more likely to win against Trump or Cruz.
I know a lot of people think that Bernie doesn't have a chance in hell of being President. Perhaps.
But I am tired of deploying the useful vote. And so, I'm voting for Bernie in the primaries and you can blame me for the death of America all you want. He represents my political beliefs and what I want for this country better than anyone else. And while I have no doubt that Hillary will be a capable president and will support her if she wins the nomination, I want the Democratic party to start acting like the liberals they are supposed to be, and not like Republicans Lite (Obama included).
Now, to vanquish Trump and the obscurantist candidates of the GOP, and even maybe return their party to something resembling dignity, moderate Republicans should feel comfortable enough voting for Hillary Clinton: she is closer to them than the fascist bozos on the GOP circus. And everybody who has half a brain cell, regardless of political affiliation, should make sure to punish the Republican party at the ballots (provided they are allowed to vote once they get there).
When in an unprecedented election year the two most galvanizing candidates are perceived as outsiders and nonpoliticians, and they attract frenzied crowds, it's because the American people on left and right are tired of politics as usual. Politicians in Washington have been oblivious to the deep fraying of trust, which is now literally non-existent, between the American public and themselves. They allowed Citizens United to happen, they continue to cater to lobbies, they have allowed this nation to become a third world country, yet they didn't see it coming.
The Republicans thought Trump was a joke that would quickly implode, and never in a million years did Hillary imagine that Bernie Sanders, the old socialist hippie Jew from Vermont, would be a serious opponent. Well, guess what? Hell froze over.
I think a lot of this has to do with the internet age and the democratization of the media. News and their attending opinions travel much faster than the tortoises in Washington can keep their fingers on. As evidenced by the volatility of certain public debates, like the political correctness mass hysteria on campuses, and the way people take to social media to campaign for their candidates, it is clear that the people have left the traditional way of acting around elections in the dust. The establishment media tried to ignore and obscure the rise of Bernie Sanders with every weapon in their formidable arsenal. It didn't work. The Sanders campaign worked around it quite successfully. Donald Trump has done the same. So the media is now having a field day feeding panic into the hearts of liberals and into the hearts of beleaguered white people who live in suburbs and think immigrating predator zombies are out to get them.
The establishment doesn't know what hit it. To quote Grumpy Cat: "Good."
The American people are so fed up with the status quo, the entrenched corruption, the political dynasties, a mythically robust economy that only seems to succor the rich, that they are willing to vote either for a millionaire megalomaniac or a crusty old socialist. It's an interesting time to be alive.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Open Unhappiness

I haven't seen a more offensive advertising since Donald Trump last opened his mouth. Mistakenly thinking that its role in society is to do good, Coca-Cola Mexico came up with a campaign to "open your heart" and "break prejudice". Which is fine. We don't listen to someone like the Pope when he exhorts us to do the same, but if Coke says it, the entire Mexican nation is sure to follow through. After all, it is a known fact that Mexicans drink far more Coke than water.
In the commercial, a bunch of young white models, all behaving in slow motion, get into a hipstery looking truck, and, supremely enamored of their own munificence, arrive at an indigenous Mixe village in Oaxaca to spread their self-congratulatory, privileged joy. There, instead of bringing education, jobs, better housing, opportunities, water, curiosity, respect, understanding, equality, any sort of practical help, or simply begging humbly for forgiveness, they unload coolers filled with ice-cold Cokes and, armed with plywood, "build" a hideous Christmas tree made of Coca-Cola bottles that happens to look like a deformed Coke bottle and which says something like "let's keep the unity" in the Mixe language.
According to The Guardian, where you can still see the spot, there were calls to take this preposterous garbage off the internet, for the expected reasons: patronizing the Mixe people, and by extension all the indigenous cultures of Mexico, while encouraging their consumption of a drink that can only hasten their tooth decay, their diabetes, and their death.
To me, this, although true, is not the biggest problem. I love Coke and will love it until it causes my untimely demise. In my case, the demonization of its sugar content falls on deaf ears.

Forget about the tone-deaf impropriety of a foreign company that peddles what many people consider syrupy poison telling Mexicans how to deal with their "prejudice".
Forget about the absurd appropriation of a Christmas tree by discarded product.
Forget the wholesale contempt for the original religious and cultural traditions of the indigenous Mexican peoples.
Forget about the imposition of Christmas, consumerism, cavities and Coca-Cola by a bunch of insufferable rich twats pretending to "give back" while they look down on the "indians".
Forget, if you can, the plywood.
What makes one retch is the abject cluelessness of an ad that preaches against prejudice while completely avoiding the vast majority of Mexicans, who are neither resplendent white specimens nor indigenous people.
Where are the people who represent most Mexicans, not just the ones at the very top and the very bottom of society? Where's the working class? Where's that mythically expanding Mexican middle class everyone talks about? In short, where are all the other brown people?
As is traditional in Mexican advertising, they don't exist. They are rarely, if ever to be found in a commercial.
This ad is no different from the great majority of ads in Mexico, which, unless they are public service announcements, almost exclusively cast people who seem to have arrived recently from Scandinavia or the tonier confines of Buenos Aires. But in this case, for maximum absurdity and bitter unintended irony, it also stars, probably for the first time in the history of Mexican corporate marketing, a number of forsaken natives, and not even this fact could make the advertising agency, the casting agency, the director and the client consider representing all the rest of the actual people who drink their beverage, and who are hounded every second of their lives by the racism the ad purports to fight.
People who deny that Mexican society is predicated on the most enduring, insidious racism need to be subjected to an endless loop of this ad, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
So do the people who made it. Ad infinitum.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Airbnb, Or The Limits of Advertising.

Perhaps you have seen the Airbnb ad at your local cinema where a comely young woman travels the world, staying in wonderful houses, (with pools!) surrounded by lovely people who soon become like family and take her to karaoke bars in Tokyo. Or the one about a baby peering out a window, a blatant rip-off of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, poetic mumbo jumbo included. Their new campaign concept is "Is Mankind?" Well, to judge from my own personal experience renting from Airbnb, the answer is "no".
Airbnb's marketing and advertising make it sound like their business proposition, in which total amateurs supplement their income by becoming innkeepers overnight is about community, sharing and humanity. And perhaps it is, in a few miraculous cases. But there is a chasm from here to Pluto between Airbnb's aspirational imagery and the reality of the business. And I think this sets both hosts and guests up for bitter disappointment. This gulf between the ads and reality reminds me of those cigarette ads from the fifties in which doctors endorsed smoking Lucky Strikes for good health.
It's all about managing expectations. People point out to me that making a buck from strangers by renting them your house is not new. Before Airbnb, people did it through Craigslist and other channels. But because there was no marketing, people were ready to expect ghouls, both as hosts and guests. Nobody expected veritable angels of mercy to descend on a property. After some back and forth to make sure nobody involved was a card-carrying psycho, you hoped for the best and braced for the worst. Airbnb provides a well-organized platform to do the same thing. However, they have also decided to brand themselves as the paragon of human kindness, and this is where expectations are squashed.
Now, I don't know about you, but for the life of me, I will never understand what people like about staying in the houses of strangers. Give me a hotel: clean, well managed, with a good mattress and decent towels, and I'm all set. You say: "oh, but it is generic, it is anonymous". Anonymous makes me horny. I hate bed and breakfasts. I have nothing to say to total strangers early in the morning. I don't want to use someone else's bathroom, much less have to make the bed and wash the dishes. Is this so hard to fathom? Hotels are expensive, I know. But their price includes not having to do all of the above: a fair deal, as far as I'm concerned. 

The first time I rented on Airbnb, I found a very hip-looking house in Mexico City for a trip with friends. We wrote the host telling him that we wanted the house exclusively for ourselves. We were six people. He said yes. When we arrived, the house was not only falling apart, and dirty, but there were other guests staying in what were supposed to be our rooms. We ended up moving to a hotel.
The second time I rented was a three-month lease on behalf of an employee. The employee quit before his contract was over and when I asked the host to cancel the reservation, he completely ignored me. He had over $7000 in his pocket and was indifferent to my pleas to resolve the situation. I involved Airbnb, which ruled that I was responsible, and all I could do was appeal to the host, so I had to pay for the full stay. Then lo and behold, after the guest left, the host tried to shake me down for $1200, claiming damages: three burned pots that needed a vigorous massage with a Brillo pad, and similar pathetic stuff. Airbnb ruled that this was wear and tear covered by the insurance and I was not liable.  I must say that Airbnb was swift and professional in getting involved. That host was a vulture.
I have since erased my profile from Airbnb.  Next time, I'm going to a HOTEL, where they know how to deal with guests because that is what they do for a living. Who needs the aggravation?
My point being: most regular people have no business in the hospitality business. They have no idea what it entails. I bet that many of the hosts for Airbnb could care less about being kind to humanity, and are just happy to make some dough. This gets exponentially complicated by the fact that they are opening their houses to total strangers - people who may be nice, or not; who may have horrid hygiene habits, or not. 
I wonder if this new campaign isn't an attempt to remind people of the better angels of their nature, because Airbnb must be drowning in disputes. They posted their baby video on Facebook, a piece of schmaltz specifically crafted to elicit tears of gratitude for being alive, yet most of the comments are bitter complaints about everything: hosts, guests, the system, the reviews: human pettiness all around. This makes me suspect that Airbnb thinks it can coax people to behave themselves by waxing poetic. I'd prefer something more realistic.
It behooves Airbnb to stop the cute hipstery nonsense. Are you a cheap bastard who won't stay in a hotel? Well then, buyer beware. What you get for that is: amateurs. As for the hosts, it's not enough to put out a clean towel and call it a day. You have to be hospitable, and also not lie about the state of your place and its size. You have to be someone who enjoys making people feel at home. Otherwise, find another way to make a quick buck. Go stand on a corner, or become an Uber driver.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Suis Je Charlie Hebdo?

#Je suis Charlie Hebdo; #Je ne suis Charlie Hebdo. Hashtag slogans are corny, no matter what the cause. If at first they may spark a quick burst of solidarity with the human catastrophe du jour, by the second time you see them, they are already stale.
The minute #JeSuisCharlieHebdo took the internet by storm as a kneejerk protest against the despicable murders in Paris of the satirical magazine's cartoonists, staff and one Muslim policeman (#JeSuisAhmed), many pundits took to clarify that they were not Charlie Hebdo. For Charlie Hebdo's particular brand of satire is indeed mostly leaden, offensive, and unfunny. To me, unfunny is the most offensive fault of comedy, its most unforgivable sin, because it is usually tone deaf, mean spirited, and many times, deeply corrosive. Totalitarian governments have always used unfunny humor for nefarious ends. The sense of humor of the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao was to deride, stereotype and dehumanize people. Often, they did this through caricature. Totalitarians don't tend to have a funny sense of humor. They have vitriol, which is not funny. They can viciously deride others but tolerate no jokes about themselves. So it is with fundamentalist islamists. They are totalitarians: they abide no dissent. Punishment means death.
Those who are now bravely stating that they are not Charlie Hebdo complain about the offensive nature of the magazine's cartoons, about the fact that they cross a line, are racist, are a part of the mainstream media (this apparently is some sort of sin, even though it is an independent magazine with a modest circulation), and aim to offend the most downtrodden sector of French society, in this case, poor, unassimilated, discriminated Muslims who are there as a result of French colonialism. According to those who are not Charlie, the sin of Charlie Hebdo's brand of humor is that it is exclusionary, racist, and hateful. This may be true, but it is no reason to die for.
The difference between Charlie Hebdo's heavyhanded satire and that of, say, the Nazi regime, is that the magazine felt it was involved in a fight to preserve and exercise their right to be offensive; to use, and even abuse their freedom of expression guaranteed under the law. What is permitted as free speech in France may be debatable, and perhaps in the future, open to change. The French obsession with insisting that their citizens be no different clings on to an idealistic notion of a secular republic which seems increasingly unattainable, as in reality, communities in France are not only very different but alienated from one another. These are crucial questions for how France deals with its ethnic and religious minorities. But this is also not a reason for the murder of these people.
Those wounded by Charlie Hebdo's humor could resort to a number of responses, from angry letters to the editor, to legal recourse, to disseminating funny or unfunny cartoons about French liberals themselves; God knows there's plenty of comic material there. These brainwashed, ignorant idiots opted for murder.
My problem with the train of thought that focuses on Charlie Hebdo's morally suspect humor is that it provides a slippery slope towards virtually blaming the victim. The French government had asked the magazine to stop publishing inflammatory drawings, the magazine had been threatened with violence before; hence, they had it coming. This is dangerous thinking because it detracts from the fact that in no universe is publishing offensive cartoons about anything a justification for murder. If we become inured to the abject absurdity of killing someone for their opinions, we will cease living in a free world. We might as well welcome back the Inquisition.
All those who start their harangues assuring us that of course they in no way justify the killings and then go on to blame France, the white man, colonialism, racism, and in effect, the offensive cartoons, may have a point. But they are mis-assigning blame. The blame lies squarely with islamist terrorist groups that recruit the criminal and most desperate elements in Muslim communities to terrorize the world for their own political agenda. If these kind of arguments take hold, someone can arrive at the conclusion that the Jews who were shopping at that kosher market in Paris when they were taken hostage had it coming to them because Israel, and Gaza and, you know the drill. Or that the people who died in 9/11 deserved it because of America's imperialist, idiotic foreign policy. No. Nobody deserves terror.
Another false moral equivalency troubles me. Some complain, rightly, that when 16 Europeans get killed everybody has a fit, but no one cares about over 200,000 Syrian dead or whatever other large number of non-white human beings are being currently traumatized elsewhere. Certainly, this is a good opportunity to remind everyone that islamic fundamentalism is killing and terrorizing far more innocent people in Africa and the Middle East than French citizens in Paris, but the comparison is uneven. The reason for the massive outpouring of shock and outrage at the Charlie Hebdo's murders stems less from us callously caring only for our our own, than from the infernal disproportion, the chilling insanity of killing someone over some drawings. It hits closer to home, not because we are indifferent or racist, but because most of us do not live in war ravaged countries, in hellish situations that rage on for years for which our outrage has muted into helpless despair. I do not argue with the fact that we should be equally tormented by every injustice that takes place in the world, but this brutal attack was shocking. People reacted with shock. Why are we being taken to task for our outrage?

The democratization of opinion in the internet has brought us a new kind of creature: the hectoring social media commenter.  The comfort and anonymity of our screens now serve as our own personal bully pulpits. Some use their virtual soapbox to spew the vilest defamatory commentary. Racists say vicious things in forums with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Antisemites are already claiming that the attacks in Paris were orchestrated by the Mossad. On a thread online, a commenter declared that she could bestow no sympathy to the cartoonists, but that she felt for their families. Who is she, God? What kind of senseless, asinine posture is that?
Among liberals with a conscience, the fashion is to be offended by everything and to accuse everything and everybody of racism. In this cacophony of opinion, everything is equally racist. If someone decides to dress up as a geisha and they don't happen to be Japanese, that is decried as racist cultural appropriation (a particularly insidious academic term that drives me crazy). Wearing a geisha costume to a party is equivalent to saying that Blacks provoke their own deaths by not obeying the law. What happens then is that the actual meaning and manifestations of racism get watered down and equalized with irrelevant, politically correct whining.
Because the persona we project publicly on the internet is who we wish to be, rather than who we really are in our innermost hearts -- flawed, prejudiced and far from saints -- online, people become moral crusaders. Apparently, on the internet people have never had a contradictory thought; prejudice has never crossed their minds. Most of us are guilty of harboring prejudices, but all we hear online is a chorus of insufferable self-righteousness.
I am not Charlie Hebdo because there are wittier, less toxic ways to champion freedom of thought, belief and expression. But I am Charlie Hebdo because I should not live in fear of a violent death for expressing my opinions, offensive as they might be to anyone.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Catcalls and Harassment: The Mexican Version

Photo by the great Nacho López.
Ever since I saw that video of a humorless woman who walked the streets of New York for 10 hours and endured plenty of catcalls, I have been wanting to add my two cents to this outrage du jour.
Well, here goes:
I grew up in Mexico City. What she went through is Emily Post's version of chivalry compared to the kind of stuff I, and every human with a vagina, goes through in Mexico. To be honest, when one comes from a Latin country this is so commonplace, so accepted, encouraged even, that I was shocked, SHOCKED, when I read that people were calling this gringo version of male attention, harassment. Not that it isn't, but that there are entire countries on Earth where nobody thinks it is.
Of course, upon watching the video brimming with Latinos, I was not surprised.
A little bit of background:
In Spanish, there is a name for gallant, poetic, corny, inventive catcalls. They are called piropos. Examples:
"It turns out that sculptures walk!"
"If you lived in heaven I would die just to see you."
"From what toy store did you escape, doll?"
You get the idea.
I died laughing at the Black guy in the video who comes up with the priceless: "I just saw a THOUSAND dollars!" He would not pass muster in Mexico.
I got only a handful of piropos. Apparently, modernity is the great vulgarizer, so most of the ones I got weren't particularly creative, but they were sort of romantic, something praising one's superior beauty. Those made me smile, and sometimes even say thank you. Men who utter piropos or gallant phrases would never dream of pursuing the issue further. It's just a bon mot, and one's acknowledgement is their prize.
I just found out there are internet websites with lists of piropos to aid males in their conquest of females. Americans, please don't faint.
Then there are the double entendres (a skill Mexicans excel at), some of them clever and some of them vulgar, and many of them bizarrely both: "I'd like to be your blowdryer, so you could hold me by the handle." I got some of those. The really clever ones, you got to hand it to them, they make you chuckle inside; for the vulgar ones, the best response is chilly hauteur.
And then I got some, usually from construction workers, or other men in the lowest economic rungs, muttered under the breath but clearly audible, which were so violently filthy that they actually made my heart pound with disgust, and made me feel violated. I don't remember exactly what they were, and I may have been young enough not to even know what the hell some of them meant, but I knew they were revolting, and had the intention to debase.
And that is not counting the dirty, salivating ogling of one's legs or breasts as if the viewer had never before seen a pair. A typical Mexican female response to extremely aggressive gaping is: "Did you lose something?" I find this kind of gaze far more intimidating and disgusting than catcalling. Also, it is more cowardly.
Further along the scale of objectification, how about the guys on crowded streets that deliberately bump into you just to graze your breast with the tip of their elbow? In the Mexico City subway, at rush hour on certain lines cars are segregated by gender. I was once on a very crowded bus when I felt a digit go up, way up, between my legs. That, ladies and gentlemen, is harassment.
When I was about 14, I was with a big bunch of friends at a park in Mexico City, all girls, all the same age. A guy drove by, rolled down his window and exposed his erect dick at all of us. It was brutal and shocking and we all screamed and averted our eyes, but we also, if I remember correctly, started howling with laughter. I think a couple of my friends pointed at his dick and laughed and laughed. I'd like to think that was the end to that erection.
So permit me if I roll my eyes at the nationwide outrage unleashed by the video (plus the added outrage when it was found that they edited out all the white guys and left only the Blacks and Latinos to represent).
I don't dispute that there is something wrong about men feeling entitled to comment on any female who simply happens to be walking by. They certainly do not do that to their own kind, do they? I wish they'd try it, see what happens. But I find that when guys simply saying "good morning" elicits the kind of outrage almost fit for a sex offender, something dangerous is at play. The lack of a sense of humor is very alarming to me. It reminds me of lynch mobs.
There are degrees, people. I bet if it's Hugh Jackman saying "good morning, beautiful", nobody would call it anything but charming. Women need to understand very clearly the difference between an innocuous catcall and truly abusive harassing behavior, like that of the guy in the video that walks by the woman's side for 8 minutes. If she wasn't being filmed, I bet she'd have screamed 30 seconds into it.
Like porn, you should know it when you see it. When confronted with a catcall, you have three choices: best and most effective to ignore it, appreciate it if it charms you, or tell the motherfucker to shut the fuck up.
As for stronger kinds of harassment as described above, it is very hard, but also very important, to do something. Scream; if safe, confront the perp, if not, report him or ask for help.
"Good morning, beautiful" is okay, but all that other stuff has got to go.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

From Russia With Love

I'm very disappointed with Moscow. It was not the chaotic place I expected or what the travel guide cautioned about. Either all the crooks were on vacation or it felt very safe, very normal, like any other cosmopolitan, modern capital. To hear it from our horrid travel guide (Fodor's -- but they all suck), we were supposed to look over our shoulders at all times for pickpockets during the day and bands of marauding drunks at night. All we got was a bunch of mostly local tourists and regular folks, with the occasional drunken bum here and there; nowhere near the amount of homeless people one sees in New York. Perhaps they were on vacation too.

The Bolshoi
Other than giving our brains a workout with the cyrillic alphabet, Moscow was easy. The Moscow Metro is the 8th wonder of the world. I want to live there. Each and every station is spotless. There is no garbage, not on the tracks, not on the platforms. I wonder if the Russians simply don't have that terrible custom of eating "on the go", or maybe they are just good citizens that don't like their city to look and smell like a dump, or maybe Putin sends them to Siberia if they litter, but whatever it is, it's working. Walking the streets of Moscow, from Red Square to far flung working class neighborhoods which were just as clean, I got angry about the cesspool of filth that is New York City. Why do we live in a giant trash can? Why don't we have good municipal cleaning? We should be ashamed of ourselves.
The metro was first built by Stalin (a very evil man) for the people, and it is a marvel of public propaganda and Soviet grandeur, that actually works. Many trains are old but in working shape. You never have to wait over five minutes for a train. And the stations! Each one has a different motif, from the streamlined art deco of Mayakovskaya, to the Soviet rococo of Komsomolskaya. We actually took a ride on its circular line and got off on all the stations, just to see them. It's a great thing to do on a rainy day.

We did not interact much with the locals. Like New Yorkers, they live and let live. A couple of women heard us speaking Spanish and asked in halting English where we were from and we had fun conversations with them.
The first weekend the city was deserted. If there was a war in Ukraine, you could not tell. Peace and quiet, except for the unfortunate custom of restaurants to broadcast techno music at all times. Apparently, this is a thing.
Moscow is an imperial capital. It has grand wide avenues, and huge imperial and Soviet buildings. It is pretty majestic. And it seems that the gazillions made by the oligarchs as they divvied up the spoils have trickled down. The city is clean and well preserved. I imagine this was not always the case.
We saw spawns of oligarchs in some places. The girls tend to wear a uniform of Louboutin high heels and flared miniskirts and lots of bling. Girls who are naturally six feet tall love to wear six inch heels to make everybody else feel like dwarfs. People who look like peasants go into the Louis Vuitton store (catty corner from a frieze of Marx, Engels and Lenin) to buy stuff for their sullen teenage daughters. For Russians, when it comes to luxury, more is more. Like a bottle of vodka that comes in its own Fabergé egg with crystal shot glasses and costs thousands of dollars. We saw that in this here humble supermarket:

We went to the Kremlin's armory museum which showcases the gowns and jewels of the Tsars.
You look at the accumulation of bling and you understand why there was a revolution. Too much! And now it's like that all over again. 80 years of brutal communist rule, to go back to oligarchs. In the meantime, Stalin destroyed a huge cathedral to build the largest outdoor swimming pool the world has ever known. He basically created a new religion of communism, with the same lies and fantasies as any other religion, plus a reign of terror. Now they have rebuilt the cathedral. Apparently, underneath it there is a car wash and a dry cleaner. We looked for them, but could not find them.
Highlight of the trip: Lenin's mausoleum. Lenin is still lying in state, in a somber, cool and sinister art deco mausoleum. He is embalmed. He is a redhead and had a beautiful nose. One of his hands is clenched. He looks rather pasty and shriveled, from all these years of being dead. Everybody loves Lenin (pronounced Lyenyin). There are statues, and the national library and plaques in his name. Stalin, on the other hand, is almost nowhere to be found.
Russian brides take pictures in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, around the corner from Lenin's corpse.  So cheerful!

What is interesting is that remnants of Soviet grandeur are proudly preserved. We went to a fabulous Soviet park that wants to resemble both Versailles and a World Expo.  Besides the Museum of Cosmonauts (super fun), it has pavilions for all the Soviet republics, and things like geology and petrol. The Soviets basically replaced religious iconography with their own iconography. There are always solid, hardworking Slavs looking forward into the future with resolve, when they are not carrying sheafs of wheat. The story of the triumph of the revolution is told through magnificently executed tableaux all around the city, the communist equivalent of stained glass panels in medieval churches. It's all a crock of bull, but at least they had great artists and designers in charge. I'm sure that the more you see thick sheafs of wheat and vases laden with fruit, the more privation there was, but that is propaganda for you.

To infinity and beyond!
Crock of bull
Commie kitsch
The Bolshoi was on vacation, as was the opera, but September promised to bring a lot of culture back. There are a lot of theaters. We went to the Moscow version of Pere Lachaise to pay our respects to Chekhov and Prokofief. Einsenstein was also buried there, but we could not find him. Some of the tombs are inscribed with the hammer and sickle in lieu of a cross. Religion is the opium of the masses, huh?

With my main man, Anton Chekhov.
Boris Yeltsin's grave. A disaster. 

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Crime and Punishment

To quote Chekhov, I am in mourning for my life in this homey restaurant from Hell. 
Hello, tovariches! Back from Moscow, which was surprisingly grand, unbelievably clean, and easy to handle. My cholesterol count must be through the roof, as I spent ten days eating Russian food. This hearty and tasty cuisine, by the way, is the reason why almost everybody on my mother's side of the family succumbed to heart disease, and where I am probably heading as well. Alas, when in Russia, how can you not have the smetana*?
One evening, after walking enough miles for a Siberian forced march, we saw a cute little restaurant on a corner. Aromas of pasta sauce wafted from it. After all that borscht and varenikes, good old Italian pasta sounded like a swell idea.
So we walk in at around 10 pm, and a very sweet, smiling waitress welcomes us. The place looks like somebody cute's living room, full of tchotchkes. There is a big table with Japanese people and a couple of other tables. It takes her a while to bring us the menus. In general, service has been slow and erratic in Moscow, but not rude. Food always arrives cold and with not much chronological order.
My two companions order first, an appetizer and a main course each. She writes it down. Even though all the menus have an English translation, most waitstaff do not speak English, so like Alan Turing, they need to break the code and make sure that that which we are pointing to in a strange alphabet in the menu is the same thing we are ordering in Russian.
Then it's my turn. I order the tomato basil pasta. I am told: not possible.  She taps on her wristwatch. No pasta of any kind. So I order the fish, which Magnificent Arepa has ordered. No fish for me. No fowl either. No entrees. Apparently, my friends can have dinner, but I'm late to the party. While we are trying to figure out what on earth is happening, the waitress keeps running back and forth to handle the other tables and the kitchen, where I imagine, an ogre of a chef is wringing her neck for letting us in so near to closing time (11 pm).
After much pantomime, we understand that she is telling me that I can only have appetizers. At this point, the universal code for dining expectations is broken. How is it possible that two people at the same table will be served dinner, but not I?  In New York, the hostess would have made a face like she's smelling farts and said that the kitchen is closing in ten minutes, but this was not an option here. Here the option was: some of you will eat what you want, but not all.  One of you will eat what I tell her to eat.
Normally, I would not object to the only-appetizers plan, but the list of offerings was not very appealing. I ordered the herring with boiled potatoes and raw onion (like a cossack, you bet), but the rest was further down the scale of foods that hunter-gatherers in the Steppes eat. Stuff like boiled pork skins or cold vegetables. Nyet.
She brings our bottle of wine and starts uncorking it, still without addressing what is to happen to me. We gesture to her that before we drink, we need to solve my dinner problem. Our facial expressions denote a growing frustration. She keeps smiling, the mousy bitch. So far, she has gently steered me away from food but has not offered alternatives. She simply does not seem to understand what is my problem. I am to have herring. Is that not enough?
So, hungry, or rather quite hangry, I have a tiny little meltdown and I stand up and announce that we are leaving. Some sort of ado ensues and then the waitress points to the pasta carbonara and says that she can offer that.  How a pasta carbonara is faster and easier than the tomato basil one is a question that will haunt me until the end of time. Because of this kind of communication glitch, one spends a good amount of time in restaurants pondering questions along the time/space continuum such as, if everything takes so long, why does it all appear at the table at once? Or, it is possible that they were making the sauce from scratch, ran out of tomatoes, or Einstein was plain wrong?
Anyway, the waitress apologizes. I apologize. We drink to everyone's health. Food arrives. To the waitress' utter amazement, I exchange my hard earned pasta for the fish Magnificent Arepa ordered. By the way, Arepa ate pasta carbonara for three or four consecutive days, once both for lunch and dinner. They make a decent version in Russia.
We finish this food, which is quite tasty, and look forward to our friend's beef Strogonoff.  We wait. And we wait. And soon there is no one left in the restaurant, and the waitress is cleaning up. Then we start getting interesting cues, like the chef going out the door with a huge pyrex in hand (with which I'm convinced he will feed my friend's Strogonoff to his family and/or dog). The Strogonoff never arrives. The waitress smiles without explanation or apology until the bitter end.

*Cream: it's on everything.