Monday, March 31, 2008

Brain Wave Focus Grouping

It's all we needed.
Thanks to Mr. Ex-Enchilada for sending me this report in the NYT, about how some research companies are now testing consumers' brain waves, heart rates and eye responses when they watch commercials.
It never ends.
Commercials who won Cannes Lions (prized for creativity) were compared with commercials who won Effies (prized for effectiveness):
Winners of Effies “tend to be a little less emotional and use rational claims a bit more” than winners at Cannes, Ms. Moses said, and ads that won Lions tended to be much better liked than their Effie counterparts. But surprisingly, “there are very important similarities” between the two types of winners, she added, which can help guide future campaigns. Fifteen of the 19 Cannes and Effie winners engaged consumers faster than average spots, Ms. Moses said. “Typically, a spot engages with viewers in 5 to 7 seconds. The Cannes and Effie ads engaged, whether emotionally or cognitively, in 1.5 seconds.”Whichever award the commercials won, they had an equal effect on purchase consideration and on brand favorability, Ms. Moses said.
I don't think this is surprising at all. This is what creative people have known in their creative guts all along: that good ideas work. Some clients hate creative prizes because they think those ads don't sell. Great ads are those that are creative, artistic if you wish, and they also sell.
They are the ads that when you tell someone you saw a great ad, you remember the brand it was for.
And as much as I am loath to compare commercials with movies, great ads would be like those movies that do very well at the box office and also have artistic merit.

But I'm tired of this pushing and pulling between the so called science of market research (which if you must know, I pretty much loathe), with the ineffable, mysterious power that comes from a great, engaging idea. The effect of a great story, a surprising twist, a good joke, (and yes, a smart strategy) is very hard to explain, describe, much less quantify. I've no doubt that there are some smart consumer research outfits out there, but I have witnessed research studies that are nothing but modern quackery designed exclusively to have marketers part with a lot of money. I once sat through an excruciating round of creative testing for beer commercials in several major cities. The study asked the target (blue collar workers who guzzle beer) to describe metaphors for the taste of beer and do poetic free associations with the color of beer. Needless to say, we were tearing our hair out (as were the subjects), and this little expedition into absurdity must have cost the client a very pretty penny.
The eye opening responses of the poor subjects: beer tastes like beer and it is the color of beer. Now leave me alone.
Marketers keep trying, because they need to justify the money they spend and the decisions they make.
Understandable, but imagine the newly minted fear of a creative team whose ideas now hinge on how many blinks of an eye. What if my heart races and my eyes dilate, but it's because I'm hating being a guinea pig?
If there has always been something vaguely sinister about focus groups, this is really opening a new frontier of orwellian intrusion.
Marketers here are very aggressive about intrusion. They think it's the shit. I think this is becoming their undoing. The more you attack people with ads, or with things that are ads but pretend not to be*, the more they tune them out.
But do a fun commercial that makes someone chuckle and feel good about your brand, and you have won the battle.

*more on this on the next post.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Gurbye, Ask A Mexican

Gustavo Arellano, the Ann Landers of Mexicans, is retiring his column for good. Apparently, he couldn't take it any more from the pc crowd that gets offended over anything and everything (probably more than he got offended by the stupid gringos that tried to get a rise out of him).
My feeling is some of the people who have volunteered to have the best interests of US Hispanics at heart need to lighten up, pronto.
We have a great sense of humor, but some people get all holier than thou when we make fun of ourselves.
As always, the rule is: I can make fun of myself and my compadres all I want, but not you. If you do make fun of me, it has to be funny to me. Same goes for you.
I don't think Arellano's column was that witty, but it was fun that he turned the stereotypes on their ass.
Gurbye, amigou.

Monday, March 24, 2008

New Yorkers rude? Naaah

Yesterday, as we took the bus back from the best fried chicken on Earth (we should have hiked all the way to Staten Island to walk it off but we were too stuffed to move), we adopted a Spanish tourist from Sevilla called Esther. She asked us to tell her where 59th st was and because we love helping tourists, we engaged in conversation with her. We learned, and not for the first time in the last couple of weeks, that people from the outside world think New Yorkers are very, very, rude.
When I hear this:
1. I am mortified and utterly dismayed.
When it comes to tourists I am like a St. Bernard, ready and willing to help them navigate their inscrutable maps, our inscrutable subways, the inscrutable layout of the West Village, etc. I want them to know that we are very nice, we just don't have time to shoot the breeze like they do wherever the hell they come from.
2. I ask them if they have been to Macy's. The invariable response is "yes".
This illuminates everything.
I patiently explain that we should not be judged by Macy's, as Macy's is the simulacrum on Earth of the ninth circle of hell. I assure them that absolutely everybody who is human is manhandled at Macy's, regardless of race or origin. I had such a traumatic experience buying a pair of gloves 10 years ago, I never went back. Shudders still run down my spine as I remember the barking harpy who sold me the gloves. Cruella DeVil was a saint compared to her. In fact, every time I pass by Macy's, I shiver.
But why? Asks Esther. What can I tell you, Esther? Do not ask logical questions. It looks like part of the work requirements of the sales staff is to have the demeanor of the guard dogs at Hades.
Not that the other stores fare much better; it's not that I go into Bloomingdale's and instantly feel a fuzzy welcome with open arms. At Barney's, I feel the chill of the sales staff trained to ooze contempt on the likes of moi. Hence, I avoid department stores.
Eva, a wardrobe stylist, was shellshocked and exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after her shopping expeditions here. (which of course included Macy's). Originally from Buenos Aires, but now based in that capital of creepily chirpy salespeople also known as LA, she told me she understands that LA is the completely over the top opposite of NY, in that the sales people there think they are your BFF and really want to know how you are doing today. But she was not prepared for the onslaught of rudeness, especially considering she was buying tons of clothes for a wardrobe fitting.
Esther said the bus drivers were very impatient with her because she was unable to slide her Metrocard in correctly. When I do that, they shoot daggers at me too. But I'm used to it. I even find it part of the surly NY charm. I guess that tourists feel a little more insecure and selfconscious and therefore are more sensitive to these slights.
We are not so bad.

A great day in Harlem

With the miraculous weather we've had these past few days, we took the A train and landed on 125th St, for a stroll in Harlem. We took notice of many new buildings with condos for sale. And a brand new H&M. Hmmmm...
We saw half the population of Europe strolling around Harlem, as we were. Groups of Spanish, French, Italians, Germans. We could surmise no such groups of white Americans, alas. Not surprising, but very sad. They could learn something of this great neighborhood.
The Europeans come to Harlem fascinated, one assumes, by the history of Jazz and the blues and of Black people in America.
They sit on the stoops across the Abyssinian Church and watch the splendidly dressed congregation come out of the service. The crowd was resplendent in their Easter Sunday best. It is a little strange, not to say, declassé, in bad taste, rude and slightly awkward, for the tourists to be gawking shamelessly like that, but what can you do? Tourists are like that.
I think most Europeans have no clue about America and they have these romanticized notions of this country, when they are not hating it to bits, but at least they show curiosity and interest. Being that many of them live in countries that are even more racist than ours, I wonder what they're thinking.
When I go to Belleville or Barbés in Paris, to visit the African neighborhoods, there are hardly any tourists, ever. I hope I don't gawk like that. One tries to be an unobtrusive tourist, the best kind.
Then we walked to 151 and Frederick Douglass to eat the world's best fried chicken at Charles' Southern Kitchen and its amazing all you can eat buffet, which is now all of 13 bucks per person.
This place has like 6 tables. The tables are incredibly idiosyncratic. There are two big round tables, and like three small square tables. The tables are not designed for maximum eater turnaround, like everywhere else in NY. We shared a table with a German family. They had a NY guide book and were meticulously crossing out every Harlem landmark they had visited. As seems to be the case with Germans for some reason (in my experience), the wife was very nice and polite and the husband was not.
I made a huge mistake. I heaped on too much mac and cheese, and collard greens and candied yams, when I should have been concentrating on the chicken, one bite of which transports you to heaven immediately. I was so stuffed I thought I was going to grow wings, I had so much fried chicken from Charles, who should be a national hero.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Department of the Obvious

A genetic study has shown that the Europeans that conquered Latin America in the 1500s killed most of the men and procreated with the women, thus creating the mestizo race, according to the BBC.
Thus, places with a high concentration of natives at the time of the conquest (which the BBC quaintly calls colonisation), like Tenochtitlan, aka as Mexico City, and some Andean regions, have more people with native ancestry, whereas "the Mestizo with the highest European ancestry are from areas with relatively low pre-Columbian native population density and where the current native population is sparse."
Somehow, we have known this all along from the history we were taught as children. Without having genetic confirmation, I believe I know this since second grade. Our history books said that the male natives were exploited in the mines and killed of disease and exhaustion. The Spaniards took the women. Mexico was born, and none too happily.
I think that because most Mexicans are half European, we should all get EC passports.

No ice cream on Good Friday

Yesterday night I had dinner with some lovely Mexican friends in town from D.F.
The concierge at the NY Hilton sent them to Bay Leaf, an Indian restaurant on 56th St.
The food was delicious and the service was welcoming, ("we love people from Mexico, we have Mexican here, Tamarind Fish muy picante") warm and fun.
At the end of the meal, we ordered ice cream (fig and walnut, to be exact)
More than a few minutes later, a waiter appears and announces that we can't have ice cream.
You are closing?
No, there is no ice cream. It's Good Friday.
To clarify, he proceeds to spread his arms and hang his head in a pretty accurate imitation of Christ.
He says: Jesus Christ died. The van didn't come.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"One of those Hitler things"

No lighthearted posts for Easter, I'm afraid, my dears.
In preparation for the release of Standard Operating Procedure, the new Errol Morris film about Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker has an article by Morris and Philip Gourevitch, about Sabrina Herman, the soldier who took the infamous pictures at that horrid jail. This article should be required reading for every citizen of the US. It provokes, besides untenable outrage, several very interesting topics for pondering.
It's hard for me to write about this without flying into a shapeless rage, but I will attempt:
The writers concentrate on the power of the photographic images to make a larger point about this dark episode in the history of the US. When one of the national guardsmen attempts to describe the state of that jail when they first got there, he calls it "one of those Hitler things".
This is a kid who, like many others, joined the National Guard primarily to get money for college, so one supposes he had not read Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil. If it wasn't for the photographic documentation the Nazis, and later on, the liberating armies, took of the German extermination camps, this poor dude would not have a frame of reference for the hellish conditions he encountered in Abu Ghraib. This is why getting people acquainted with the infernal images of the Holocaust (or any other gross human misconduct) is essential. It opens our eyes and minds to the historical precedent of human evil. One would hope it gives us a moral compass; the images are so brutal and inhumane, one reacts with shame and disgust. One knows this is wrong. One refuses to debase oneself to that level.
But if you are soldier at war, trained to obey orders, if you are given orders that come from high levels and that nobody seems to question, what do you do? Reading the testimony of Sabrina Herman and others involved, I extrapolate that this is how many Nazi rank and file must have coped and lived with themselves after executing their daily duties of humiliation, torture and murder of other human beings. The Nazis invented a sophisticated apparatus of dehumanization to help themselves achieve their goals more efficiently, and the criminals of the US military intelligence, in their own modest way, did exactly the same thing. They deliberately sent to Abu Ghraib National Guard soldiers who were untrained in the handling of prisoners, who were not aware of the laws of the Geneva Convention, whose job description never mentioned enforcing torture in jail. They sent these poor, ignorant kids, who joined the National Guard to get ahead in life, perhaps with a sense of patriotic duty enhanced by 9/11, to do the dirty job for them. These kids paid with court martials and suspensions and demotions and the loss of their jobs and military careers, while the people who gave them the orders are still running around with not a care in the world, including Donald Rumsfeld, Satan himself (Dick Cheney) and even the president of this country, who has condoned and defended all of this.
As much as I abhor torture, I can't help wishing it, excruciatingly and until the end of eternity, on these gargoyles.
We all have been appalled by the photographs of the abuse at Abu Ghraib. The pictures Sabrina Herman took of herself smiling in front of Iraqi corpses are equally, if not more shocking. They provide an interesting parallel to the recently unearthed pictures of Nazis having a good time in Auschwitz. How can you sing songs and smile under the circumstances? What process has taken hold of your psychology that allows you to function emotionally in such conditions?
If you see the pictures without reading the article, you feel a sense of revulsion for this woman. She seems to be mocking the dead. She embodies the arrogant ignorance of America. But there is a story behind the photos. The article explains how a sane, young American woman can end up abetting torture and trying to live a "normal" life in the process. By making the conditions in Abu Ghraib commonplace, her superiors turned those kids into sadists. Into little Nazis.
So this is the other outrage of Abu Ghraib: American soldiers were brazenly abused by their own superiors (going all the way up to their Commander in Chief). They were demoralized with terrible living conditions, asked to perform orders that were not in their field, they were debased, mistreated and lied to. And then, when the scandal broke, they were publicly humiliated and disposed of.
If I were these people I would sue the Army, the government, The Axis of Weasel, God, someone.
I doubt that they have any recourse.
It is not easy to forgive someone like Sabrina Herman and her buddies. One is loath to exculpate people who perform cruelties in the line of duty, because then anything goes. "Oh, poor Nazis, they were just trying to cope". No. However, one must remember that before he even touched one Jew, Hitler abused, debased and sacrificed his own people by making them do his bidding (that many of them were happy to comply should be a warning for our own complicity and complacency).
In trying to destroy the Jews, he also destroyed the Germans. So when America engages in these criminal behaviors, under the pretext of national security, we need to remember that American soldiers and citizens, all of us, are victims too.
One would like to think that in Sabrina's shoes, one would act the Hollywood hero and refuse to follow orders, the Army be damned. But it is not so easy. Instead, these soldiers detached themselves from the prisoners, and some took their wartime frustrations out on them. Just as the prisoners were dehumanized, so were their captors, as they became numb to the humiliation and the abuse they had to mete out.
Sabrina, knowing there was something very wrong with this picture, took pictures.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Not a dry eye in the house

I just read the full text of Barack Obama's speech on race. It made me cry. Let me rephrase that, it made me bawl.
I'm trying to figure out why I could not stop crying. I did not see him deliver the speech; I read the words first. Then I saw him deliver the speech, with incredible poise, clarity and restraint.
I think that the main reason for my uncontrollable bawling is because it was such a relief, after 8 years of the most humiliating and undignified, illiterate, debased presidency in the history of the United States; after 8 years of letting an ignorant, uncaring bully misrepresent us hideously in the world, we are now on the threshold of choosing someone who can truly reverse the terrible damage to our dignity and our moral fiber as individuals and as a nation. That this may be a black man, is, as Obama mentions in his speech, a story that, despite the hate and the ignorance and the stupidity surrounding it, could only happen here.
I am not bereft of cynicism when it comes to politicians, including Obama, and I can see why some people think this speech is a masterful, if politically expedient, way of handling the accusations. However, it speaks very highly of the man who chose to handle this scandal in this particular way. He may be a consummate politician, but he just raised the bar to the mature, intelligent place where our political discourse should be starting.
As for Reverend Wright, all I can say is that this should be a lesson to Obama, and to all politicians, to stay the fuck away from religion. Obama can be a man of faith, but his faith should not have anything to do with his job as an elected official. I'd love it if he stopped parading it around, but after the evil rumors of his being a Muslim (and then again, exactly why should this be a problem?), I guess he has to. Still, he should remember to keep these two things very separate, in his life and, if he becomes president, in the land.
It amazes me that those commenting in the NY Times on how it is possible that Obama did not repudiate this man for 20 years, are clearly not getting the memo. The explanation is in the speech. He is spelling it out for you.
If I were a black person in America, I would not find it so farfetched. Plenty of black charismatic preachers talk shit like this. It is unfortunate that, as Obama points out, they don't say more helpful, wiser words to their congregations. As someone pointed out, the Reverend's speeches are no worse than the appalling, offensive nonsense that comes out of the mouths of some preachers in the far right. That hateful stuff, people brush off as the quirky blather of some harmless, evangelical nutjobs . But if it comes from a black pulpit, all hell breaks loose.
But really, why shouldn't black people feel rage in their hearts? Why are they expected to adore America, no matter what? Why are they expected to stop complaining about slavery and racism? Why in political silly season all of a sudden criticizing certain unsavory things about the country you love becomes anti-patriotic? Because this is your country, because you may even love it, it is your duty as an American to not love it unquestioningly, as fascists and so called patriots would have it.
This is the same idiotic controversy as when Michelle Obama spoke candidly about feeling proud of the US for the first time in her life. Everybody had a conniption. Garments were torn and hairs pulled out, and that most revolting of distorted concepts, patriotism, was bandied about like the soiled underwear of a harlot (I'm on a tear, people). But if I was a black person in America, I'd probably feel the same way as Michelle Obama, who should not have to apologize for saying what she said.
What has this country done to redress the horror of slavery and the subsequent years of prejudice and marginalization, mind you, not until the mid 1960's? Some progress has been made, but clearly not enough. I have one word for you: Katrina.
We shouldn't be patting ourselves in the back yet.
As for Barack Hussein Obama: Mister, you had my vote before today, but today, my vote for you has been cemented (unless you screw up royally from here to November).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

China is a PR disaster

I'm afraid the Olympics will not make it look better. Trying to stifle dissent in Tibet or nudity in the movies certainly does not help their cause. It doesn't look good.
Of course China should not be hosting the Olympic Games. It is a repressive, corrupt regime with a dismal record on human rights, including the right of actors to get naked on screen or to shill Pond's cream afterwards. But now it is too late, isn't it, to start a silly boycott? Why didn't we think of this when countries were bidding for the games?
If any of you still entertain any goofy thoughts of Olympic ideals, consider this:
China must have greased the sullied palms of the decrepit dudes who run the Olympic fiefdom in as massive a scale as they are destroying their own country with over-development and pollution.
At this point, we all know that a lot of athletes, particularly those from countries with wealthy Olympic budgets, cheat. They are professionals, they are hormonally enhanced, and the whole carnival is a circus of deceit. Judges rig outcomes in favor of host countries, etc.
I love the Olympic games, but one needs to be clear eyed. Do not let those corny NBC "Triumph of the Will" promos fool ya.
As we have said in these pages before, only relatively well-behaved countries should be able to apply to host the Olympics. This would probably whittle down the field to San Marino, Lichtenstein and Bali.
The Chinese government has a couple of months to clean up their act, and not in the way they think, by bullying everybody into submission.
Also, there is like a 16-hour time difference between China and here. I bet this will mean mayhem for the broadcasts. And I ain't waking up at 3 in the morning to watch the ping-pong.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Last words on the scandal

To the op-ed writers who were so concerned about the fate of Spitzer's prostitute, who were worried sick about her fate:
What is she going through now? Is she in danger from organized crime because of what she knows? Is anyone offering her legal counsel or alternatives to prostitution?
Well, no need for such hand wringing: since this is the good old US of A, she is now a bona-fide celebrity. Apparently even one of her pimps has come forward hoping to cash in.

Still their opinion is one of few that expressed concern and revulsion over the prostitution side of the story.

Whose theory is it that prostitution is victimless? (THE SAME PEOPLE WHO WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE THAT WHORES HAVE A HEART OF GOLD) It’s the men who buy prostitutes who spew the myths that women choose prostitution, that they get rich, that it’s glamorous and that it turns women on.

But most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services, have been sexually abused as children, studies show. Incest sets young women up for prostitution — by letting them know what they’re worth and what’s expected of them. Other forces that channel women into escort prostitution are economic hardship and racism.

The Emperor’s Club presented itself as an elite escort service. But aside from charging more, it worked like any other prostitution business. The pimps took their 50 percent cut. The Emperor’s Club often required that the women provide sex twice an hour.
So she may be, as has been commented in many blogs, hot, cute, the proud possesor of a great rack, etc. But she is being exploited. Prostitution is exploitation.
Good thing is that this 22 year old may be able to get something out of it, and get out of it.

Reading the commenters in the NYT wondering about what went on in Silda's mind, a woman from Vancouver said something that struck me as very smart (I paraphrase because I can't find the comment):
She imagined Spitzer alone at the podium in his press conference saying that he asked his wife not to accompany him because she did not deserve to be there.
How about that, huh?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm flummoxed... people's cavalier suggestions that Spitzer's 80,000 worth of whores shows some kind of human frailty we should be more empathetic about. Imagine the pain and humiliation he is causing his wife and daughters. I empathize with them. I don't know what kind of ball squeezing is going on with Silda, but I hope she nails him for everything he's got. This is the only way I can remotely understand her standing by him. Women should stop putting up with this male entitlement crap.
People say Sptizer deserves a second chance, this has nothing to do with his capacity to govern. Are you nuts?
People compare this to l'affaire Lewinsky and other such scandals. But I think there is a major difference between two adults who consent to have sex without involving a money transaction, and a man who solicits whores. Consensual sex between two adults (even if one of them is married) is not illegal. Women may fully consent, even love, to be whores, but there is something about prostitution that is exploitative by nature and, I venture to say, degrading.
Spitzer deeply disappoints me by going to whores. I don't care if he is blowing off steam, or his wife is frigid. Be a man, get a lover. Or use your hand.
You may say this is his personal life. One can do a lot of things in one's personal life that are unsavory, but not illegal. If you have been entrusted with the highest office in the State, you do not engage in illegal activities, period. Not because you are a paragon of virtue, but because it is stupid.
If he was caught blowing rails, or smoking joints, would people be so forgiving?
Then there are people who compare apples with oranges by comparing Spitzer to Bush and his ineptitude. Somehow this is different. Many Americans, including me, have begged for impeachment of the President repeatedly. It is not happening. The fucking Democrats have not forcefully asked for it. We're screaming on deaf ears. Whose fault is it that Bush has not been impeached? Why should the Republicans not call for Spitzer's resignation? He should have resigned yesterday.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Good News Is: Our Governor Is Not A "Difficult" John

I mean, it could be much worse. He could be a very bad and difficult john, the major prick. He could like to wear diapers or have really disgusting habits. But luckily, Kristen, his whore, likes him. This is such a relief.
Also good news: at least they were expensive hookers. The guy has some class.

I don't know what is worse:
1. The cumbersome asshole this Spitzer has turned out to be.
(And to think I voted for you, asshole. I actually feel betrayed).

2. The fact that his wife has to stand by him and share in the humiliation.
Were I Silda, this is what I would tell "Client No 9": "You need me to stand by you at the press conference? Why don't you ask "Kristen" to sub for me, you unspeakable hypocrite?"

I am not a prude, but I have never understood prostitution. I don't understand whores nor the men who pay for them. If they happen to be the sanctimonious governor of my state, well then, I'm throwing my hands right up in the air.
I was not born yesterday, so I have made my peace with the fact that prostitution will not disappear as long as swinish men run the joint, which has been the case since day one. But what would really, really help would be to legalize the business. This way the whores pay taxes (though the burden of taxes should also be on the john, like a luxury tax), the police go after more dangerous criminals, the prostitutes themselves are more protected from abuse, you name it: it is a sensible solution for all involved (except perhaps for the johns, but they barely deserve to keep their balls intact, so I don't want to hear any complaints).

And if prostitution is to continue, women should demand to pay for sex too, with gorgeous hunks on viagra (if needed). Why not? We could exploit and objectify gorgeous hunks to our heart's content and make men feel like pieces of meat while we pay them to service our needs. Equal rights.

Some random thoughts:

• Joe Bruno is probably dying of happiness as we speak (if he didn't tip the Feds himself).

• A question: why is this particular ring being investigated? Is it because Spitzer is a client, or is it sheer coincidence the feds happened in on this one ring?

• This is the hubristic behavior of a child of privilege. He should certainly resign. Whether we agree with it or not, prostitution is illegal. Apparently, transporting a prostitute across state lines is a federal crime. This man knows all this full well, from the time he used to go after such rings himself with purifying zeal. So either he is so arrogant as to think he is untouchable, or he is pathetic. Either way, he has disgraced himself and the office (not for the first time) which we entrusted to him. It's a terrible shame.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Appalling Violence

It is interesting to read the coverage of the BBC about the murder of eight students in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. There is a lot of coverage of the attack and the site allows comments. The comments are for the most part anti-Israel, which should not be surprising. But what is interesting is the nature of many of the complaints. In essence, people say that there is too much brouhaha over eight students killed in Jerusalem while nobody pays any attention to what is going on in Gaza; in some cases of course because the Jews own the media, etc.
If that is the case, how do you know what goes on in Gaza? I've been reading about it every day in none other but the New York Times. Also on the BBC.
People who hate Israel think that the response to the murder of eight teenage students inside a school is disproportionate. I think that if one looks at it as objectively as possible, if someone comes inside a school to kill students who are young, unarmed and learning, it is big news, it doesn't matter if its Columbine in Colorado or a yeshiva in Israel. There is something (brutal, cowardly, appalling) about killing unarmed innocent civilians that merits coverage, wouldn't you think? But for those who hate Israel, and in many cases this correlates to hating Jews, this is offensive and over the top. They think that nobody cares about the Palestinians. To judge from the popular response in the BBC, I think a lot more people care about the Palestinians than they do about the Israelis. But the sense of unfairness is strong and deep.
That a terrorist organization like Hamas hides behind their own citizens to launch rockets and provoke Israel does not seem to resonate. That Hamas does everything in its power to derail peace talks and to continue the violence does not merit debate. It is just Israel that is an evil oppressor.
Israel, may I remind you, withdrew from Gaza and gave it autonomy. What happened? Hamas and Fatah started killing each other for power. What happened? Hamas continues attacking Israel and has shown absolutely no interest in recognizing it or negotiating with it. Israel is supposed to make all the concessions to people who don't want it even to exist? I don't think so.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

It takes a Village

I've just come back from a meeting between NYU and some community neighbors. NYU is showing the community the expansion plans they have from today to 2031. It is not pretty.
1. They are threatening to build another building in front of mine. It's a long story, but the community is trying to have the entire block landmarked to prevent such an outrage.
2. They are thinking of destroying the lovely interior courtyards of Washington Sq Village, to put buildings there. This is outrageous.
3. They say they need 6 million more square feet, about 2 thirds of which they want to build in the neighborhood in the next 25 years.
Needless to say, community residents are up in arms. The Village people are a feisty bunch, if you ask me.
Typical New Yorkers, smartass, in your face. Some of them very, very smart.
Everybody hates NYU. They put up ugly eyesores all over the Village. Their campus looks like shit. They own a lot of property here and behave like the lord of the manor. And the neighbors are putting up a fight.
Still, for all the orneriness of the neighbors, it seems like a very uneven fight to me. On this corner, a huge, powerful, wealthy institution with great leverage with the city's politicians (an economic engine, bla bla bla). On the other corner: people, families, elderly citizens of the village. I wish us luck. We're going to need it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

So now what?

The race is getting closer and the primaries don't show any signs of going away. I am already exhausted. Weary to my bones. And we still have Guam to go.
Am I the only person who thinks this circus is ridiculously long? Why can't all the states hold their primaries on the same day, like a general election day? Candidates should have a fixed time to campaign (the less, the better), like 2 or 3 months tops, and then we should all vote for whoever we like in our heart of hearts, which would prevent most of the indignities that we all have to go through (including the candidates themselves). The media would have less opportunity of deriding Hills, she would have less opportunity of attacking Obama's race, etc, etc.
Make the primary election like a political version of speed-dating, instead of this embarrassingly drawn out lunacy. Make people trust their instincts and do their homework on the candidates. Candidates would focus on communicating what the hell they intend to do with the country, instead of talking like Hallmark cards, and voters would have to be more serious about their choice. The process as it is, is spineless for all and a drain of money and effort that would be better spent elsewhere.
And fuck the delegates. Who are those people? Let the winner come straight from the voters. Whoever gets more votes wins, no matter if it is in California or Guam. Why is this so complicated?

Monday, March 03, 2008

The proof is in the kugl

The most emailed item today from the NYT is an article that appeared in yesterday's magazine about the fact that there are no civil marriages or divorces in Israel. The article concentrates solely on the inconvenience that this means to secular American Jews when they want to get married in Israel and the orthodox rabbis who are in charge of marriages look for proof of Jewishness in a way that is obviously insulting and abusive. But in fact this is a problem not only for American Jews, but mostly for secular Israeli citizens and Jews from everywhere else who need to go through fire to please the rabbis in Israel.
I have never understood why the orthodox think they are the sole arbiters of who is Jewish and what is Jewish enough, and worse, why secular Jews let them.
To begin with, being Jewish is such a pain in the ass, who would want to claim that they are Jews if they weren't?
Secondly, endless davening and not flicking a switch on Saturdays does not a better Jew make.
My entire life has been one of total immersion in secular Judaism. I went to a secular Jewish school from age 3 to age 18 in Mexico. I lived in Israel for 4 years, I worked for Jewish institutions in Mexico. I speak Hebrew and Yiddish. My family observed the traditions beautifully. If the Nazis came back and ran into me on the street they would send me right to the ovens. And some rabbi somewhere in Israel or in Williamsburg may deem that I'm not Jewish enough for him: Screw him!
And if marriage is a problem in Israel, divorce is a disaster, because according to Jewish law only the man can grant the woman a divorce. With all due respect, the rabbis and their medieval, misogynistic mentality may not always be the best arbiters of fairness when it comes to granting divorces. I had a teacher in Jerusalem who made it her life's mission to institute secular divorce courts in Israel, because the outcomes were so frequently unfair to women. This was in 1986.
And this asking for proof does not only happen in Israel. When I got married to Mr. Ex-Enchilada in Mexico, our orthodox rabbi (I must say, a very decent guy) started asking my American born fianceé for all kinds of proof that he was Jewish.
"My mother was in a Nazi labor camp for 5 years and most of her family was wiped out, is that proof enough for you?" But no, it wasn't. David had to get records of his Bar-Mitzvah and who knows what else, in order to satisfy the rabbi. There is something about this that is not right.
What gives the orthodox the right? When I lived in Israel, the orthodox rabbis treated arriving Ethiopian Jews with utter contempt and distrust, disbelieving they were Jewish and generally making the Ethiopians feel discriminated and unwelcome. It was shameful and ghastly. What makes a bearded guy from Eastern Europe more Jewish than a Black Ethiopian Jew?
Why is this allowed to happen? Secular Jews think they owe some kind of gratitude to the orthodox, who probably wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire. There is this mystique about the orthodox, like an Israeli told me once, because supposedly "they preserve the religion for us", which has got to be the stupidest reason to allow them to abuse the system. It is up to every Jew to preserve his religion or his commitment to whatever makes him a Jew. The orthodox are not doing it for the rest of us, nor should they. Plus, I have news for you all: religious people (of any persuasion) are not holier than non-religious people. In fact, many times it is the abuse of their supposed piety what makes them deeply unholy and corrupt.
Israeli citizens should demand to have secular civil institutions in their country. It is their own fault that they have to deal with these outrages because they have allowed the orthodox to get away with murder (not paying taxes, not going to the Army and playing mind games with the country, since 1948).
Just as Israel is starting to give gay people rights, it is time for it to stop this abominable nonsense and establish civil marriage and divorce, such as exists in every modern, democratic state in the world today. Israel can be a Jewish state, but it does not have to be a religious Jewish state. In fact, the majority of its citizens are secular Jews. And Israel should be a secular Jewish state, like so many of us are secular Jews, deeply committed to our history and our culture, without a problem.