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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Recurring Nightmare

Deja vu all over again. Every time that a new provocation threatens to deepen the violence between Israel and the Palestinians is yet another time of anguish and despair. Why is this conflict so intractable? The reasons are many and complex.
But nobody really wants to hear them, on either side. In the now hysterical echo chamber of social media, it boils down to one thing on both sides of the divide: propaganda.
I don't trust that most people, regardless of their stance on the matter, can tell the difference between information and propaganda. Propaganda is manipulative, easy to digest and aims to inflame passions. Information, on the contrary, is hard work. It relies on facts. It's supposed to be objective and most importantly, it makes you think, consider, weigh, make up your mind. It's too much work, so people go with propaganda.
Well, I'm sick of the propaganda on both sides. I'm sick of scrolling down to rivers of  hatred unleashed upon Israel, the likes of which other terrible crises, indeed even worse crises, never manage to provoke. I don't hear such passionate outrage about Assad's ongoing genocide of his own people, or about the depredations of ISIS in Iraq, about the horrifying perennial conflicts in Africa, about America's drone attacks, or even about the humanitarian crisis of undocumented immigrant children right on our border. Such outpourings of virulent outrage are reserved exclusively for Israel because Israel is perceived to be the sole bully, the oppressor, the eternal aggressor in this conflict. Also, in many cases, because it allows antisemitism to come safely out of the woodwork. And please don't tell me that I perceive antisemitism because as a Jew, I am too sensitive. Antisemitism is like porn: I know it when I see it.
Newsflash for both Jews and non-Jews alike: being critical of the policies of the State of Israel does not make you an antisemite. Many Israelis and Jews, myself included, disagree with the continued occupation and other right wing policies of the current Israeli government. We are appalled and concerned by them. That does not mean we do not support Israel. On the contrary, we are worried that they are detrimental to Israel's survival. We want a better way.
Hating Israel, on the other hand, claiming that you are an anti-zionist, questioning Israel's right to exist, and spewing vitriol against Jews, that is a different story.
I am equally sick of Israeli propaganda about thousands of Hamas missiles (not remotely hitting anything, yet) and how the kind Israeli army sends leaflets out to warn Palestinians, and how restrained it is. And what would you do if your neighborhood was showered with rockets every day? These spiffy memes neglect a fundamental issue: they neglect to consider the occupation. They neglect to consider that the Palestinians living under it in permanent humiliation and distress, have a right to fight it, just like Israel has a right to its self-defense.
No one looks at a map. Well, here's another map:

No one cares about the geopolitics, the demographics, and the frightening political complexities of the Middle East. People are busy posting pictures. Of fizzling flying missiles, to Israel's public relations misfortune, rarely landing on top of as yet unscathed civilians; on the other side, and far more damaging in every sense, of scores of Palestinian children killed and maimed by the Israelis. You tell me what provokes more outrage.
But much worse than the propaganda are most comments. Caught between two sides of a world citizenry that, with the advent of social media, has taken it upon itself to be the bearer of bad news, defender and apologist for one cause or the other, one is at the mercy of unrestrained lunacy, bordering on idiocy, on both sides.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is a rapidly spreading cancer that threatens its existence. It is morally untenable. It is fraying the fabric of civilization, let alone democracy, in Israel. In my view, it has become a grave strategic error. All it has unleashed is a threat to Israel's survival as a modern nation, from the oppression of the Palestinians to the unconscionable coddling of religious Jews in the expanding settlements. If Israel continues its path towards the extreme right, it may survive as an obscurantist theocracy, but that, my fellow Jews, should be cause for alarm and our most vocal opposition. Because if that happens, it will be the end of Israel. 
Having said this, many people see this conflict as Israel's sole responsibility. They choose to ignore the fact that the Palestinians are also oppressed by the vested, byzantine interests of the Arab world, to whom the Palestinians are a convenient tool for directing elsewhere the frustrations of their own oppressed citizens.
The only way out is to find the political will of all parties involved: of Israel, of the different Palestinian factions, of the neighboring Arab states and the rest of the Arab world, of Iran, of the US, the EU, Russia, China, etc, to sit down to serious negotiations and commit political will and economic resources to find a viable Palestinian state or some other option that ensures Israel's right to exist, preferably in peace.
Good luck with that.
Still, nobody, it seems to me, is thinking creatively. Part of my despair comes from realizing that Israel always falls right into Hamas's traps. I admire Israel's technological ingenuity and its human capital, but it amazes me that it has been unable to come up with a surprising, out of the box strategy against its enemies that does not entail a massive show of force, making Israel look like the worst villain the world has ever known. Think of something that will find its enemies off-guard. It can't be easy, but the predictability of the reaction is getting to be very depressing.
I have no solutions, but, perhaps unlike most people screaming like banshees about the conflict, I think about them. What's more, I've seen a map, and I have lived in Israel. I am not a Pollyanna (see maps). I am well aware of how a hostile Arab world in turmoil must look like from Israel's vantage point (hint: not good). But at this point, there has to be a more intelligent way to protect and defend Israel.
In the meantime, this is it. I will refrain from posting or commenting, defending or attacking, arguing and wasting my breath. If you bother with a screed for or against, don't expect an answer. I'm tuning out of this nightmare. Wake me when it's over.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Problem With Puto

Mexicans are up in arms at FIFA's investigation of discriminatory misconduct by Mexican fans in Brazil, who have been heard to chant the word "puto", which means "faggot" at opposing teams. Mexicans only recently are slowly becoming aware of their own deeply ingrained prejudices, mostly thanks to the internet. We are always amazed that slurs that to us are perfectly common, such as "puto" or "blackie", are found offensive by others. "We said it in jest", or "it's a term of endearment", some of us will protest.
Mexicans will say that the word "puto" in this context was not uttered in the spirit of discriminating against any gays. This is true. The Mexican fans that were so maturely and in such a sportsmanlike fashion screaming "puto" at the opposing team were not berating any particular player because of their homosexuality. In Mexico, the word "puto" has become an all-purpose insult, not necessarily aimed at gay men. Think of Alec Baldwin or Jonah Hill hurling "faggot" at the paparazzi. People choose to neglect the fact that the original intention of both "faggot" and "puto" is to denigrate homosexuals, and when used against straight men, to disparage them by accusing them of being gay. It's the worst thing you can say to a guy (in Mexico, without mentioning his mother). Even if it is directed at the straightest man on Earth, the connotation is sissy, weakling, crybaby, coward, less than a man.
In Mexico, people are making outraged jokes at the whole situation. How dare FIFA, a corrupt organization with no ethical credibility, chastise Mexican fans for their innocent chanting? A jokey letter to FIFA is making the internet rounds. Written rather pathetically in bad English, it clarifies the definition of homosexual as a person who likes someone of their own gender and the definition of puto as "whoever reads this". It's funny, but that is exactly the crux of the matter: people prefer to ignore the fact that the insult, whether directed at gays or not, is inextricably linked to homophobia. And the word homophobia has in itself become a bit of an empty cliche, so let me remind you: it means fear (and loathing) of homosexuals.

Now, I use slurs (in the privacy of my own mind) and I hate unbridled political correctness, which also largely thanks to the internet, has created a climate, at least here in the US, of self-righteous censorship and mob accusations of racism and discrimination that threaten to turn everybody into either the thought police or hypersensitive whiners. Now college teachers need to warn students that there may be "offensive" passages in books dealing with the usual depredations in human history. People scream "racism" indiscriminately. Everybody is a victim. It's as if we are pretending that we are better than we are and that having prejudices is not the norm in human behavior. Newsflash: it is and we all have them. But that doesn't mean that people should not be aware that words have history, they have power, they can keep others down. The anti-discrimination Fare network, which reported this behavior to FIFA, considers "puto" a slur because it is, no matter how good humored the usage. They don't know that in Mexico people think there's little wrong with it. This is common. We liberally use slurs and then pretend they are not racist or derogatory. By the same token, but inversely, I have heard some fellow Mexicans try to avoid the use of the word "judío" (Jew) in my presence because they think it is a horrible slur. It is not, but they resort to rather amusing euphemisms, asking me if I am a Hebrew or an Israelite (do I look like I'm 5000 years old?). And when I say I am a Jew, they flinch because in their minds "Jew" means someone terrible. Obviously, the more ingrained the prejudice, the deeper the lack of awareness.
So let's simply turn the tables for a moment. I bet Mexican soccer fans would be delighted if their rivals would disparage our team in the same good-natured fashion. The Mexican team, a bunch of putos? I didn't think so.
I can understand to a certain point the frustration of Mexicans with the solemn humorlessness of the correctness brigade. We are great at humor, but still lag in the awareness department. At the second decade of the 21st century, however, it is about time that we look into our dark little Mexican souls and simply acknowledge our deepest prejudices. It is the first step towards diminishing them.
Something else gnaws at me. Forget about political correctness for a moment. Why is it necessary to root for our team by insulting the others? It is bad form, vulgar and completely unnecessary. Whatever happened to our good manners?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Nationalism, Politics and Frivolity

The Oscars just blew into town, leaving nothing but despair and destruction in their wake. Apparently, Mexico and Kenya almost went to war over the nationality of Oscar winner and classiest new star since Audrey Hepburn, Lupita Nyong'o, a daughter of Kenyan diplomats who was born in Mexico and left at the age of one. Lupita gamely averted an international crisis by saying that she is Mexican-Kenyan or Kenyan-Mexican and she loves carne asada tacos and both countries equally.

Poor Alfonso Cuarón is first lambasted for not making films in Mexico, then treated like a national hero for winning a bunch of Oscars. National pride surges to an all time high, since his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, is also Mexican. Some Mexicans consider the Poncho-Chivo-Lupita a Mexican axis of world domination. The last time this happened was when the Three Amigos (Del Toro, Cuarón and Iñárritu) all had nominated films.

Venezuelans bent on overthrowing their abject, incompetent, irrational, yet democratically elected government, organized a campaign asking Hollywood people to mention Venezuela's plight in their Oscar speeches. Apparently, Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto got the memo and mentioned, among other things, Venezuela, Ukraine, his mom, AIDS, etc. A lot of people liked his speech. I was not that impressed.
People who win Oscars are suddenly foisted upon a soapbox in front of a billion people, but they are still in a circus called Hollywood, not in the circus called the United Nations. Increasingly, I think they should stick to thanking their agents and costars and directors and moms. If they want to do something for world peace, they should do as Angelina Jolie and actually work it.
I know many Venezuelan friends will disagree with me on this one, but asking people who have nothing to do with that country to give it a political shout out at an entertainment ceremony is absurd. Why Venezuela and not Syria, where things are far more dire? Why not some war torn country in Africa? What makes Venezuela so special? The request is both disproportionate and inappropriate, as was the Venezuelan government's response delusional in the way that only ideologically perverse regimes can muster: they banned the Oscars. Reductio ad absurdum on both sides of the divide.
People have been trying to call the world's attention to sundry plights at the Oscars since Vanessa Redgrave lashed out against Zionism and Marlon Brando sent a Native American to retrieve his award. Except in very few instances when the issues are relevant to the films, broadcasting them from the winners' perch is misguided and frequently embarrassing.
And even when relevant, as in the case of 12 Years A Slave, it was rather jarring for Steve McQueen to mention that almost 30 million people are still slaves today, then jump around the stage like an overgrown schoolboy with his coveted Oscar. There is a tonal conflict at work. The possibility for gravitas is almost nil.
Bringing serious issues to the most frivolous event in the universe belittles and cheapens those issues. Unless the winners happen to be intelligent, articulate and self-possessed enough for impromptu eloquence, they all look like pompous asses trying to be something they're not when using their thirty seconds for some cause or another. Lupita Nyong'o did more against racism and for women with her poise and her refreshing lack of ego than any bombastic speechifying ever has.