Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Outsider Proxy

Outsiders play the role of handy, yet misleading surrogates for the most divisive contentions between insiders. What we like or dislike about outsiders is usually a safe indicator of what we like or dislike about ourselves. 
In Norway, Anders Breivik appeared to get this, for instead of targeting the intruders, he targeted those who be believed would show them favour. 
A significant threat to our globalised capitalist societies today comes less from the way human beings are attempting to roam as freely as commodities, and more from our collective response to this phenomenon.



Thursday, April 28, 2016

Canis Familiaris

There are around 1 billion dogs in the world and roughly 85% of these are street or 'village' dogs. According to new scientific research by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, those belonging to this latter class of canines are remarkably similar in shape and size the world over, and natural selection has turned them into near perfect scavengers whose proper niche is living alongside humans, not with them as pets.

Yet one of the first things you see when you live in the developing world is the obsession many ex-pats from wealthier countries themselves develop about converting these street dogs into their 'forever friends'.

There can be no doubt that many of these individuals are genuine animal lovers and I sympathise with their motives on many levels, but I can also detect yet another symptom of prevaling gringo attitudes which I find more than a little galling: the old white man’s burden of importing and imposing civilised standards on the manifest chaos of incomplete modernity.

Some of these self-styled rescuers come across as borderline misanthropes who appear to prioritise assistance for furries because the human realities of this land actually repel them. (At the next level up from cats and dogs one finds indigenous children — a demographic which attracts truly disproportionate levels of gringo goodwill in Guatemala, compared to say, their parents, or indeed the dirt poor non-indigenes of the plains.)

Just the other day I was reading with great amusement an exchange on a local ex-pat forum about a street dog adopted by a hostel in Antigua. (Viz pic below.) 

The establishment had picked up the dog, dubbed her Manchita, vaccinated and spayed her and she now lives inside the hostel — which crucially keeps its doors open 7am to 10pm, so Manchita continues to wander out to explore nearby streets.

As a result, she keeps getting re-rescued by those who can't quite grasp that a dog might want to live a bit more like a cat. Manchita even has a collar, but that doesn’t seem to interrupt the cycle.

Some of the comments suggest acerbically that not only is Manchita in urgent need of re-education, so too are her new owners.

Mochi is the only one of our dogs that ever lived on the streets, and we can honestly say that it was she who adopted us, for Mochi began following us every evening and gradually shouldered her way into our house.

Unlike the other three she has retained the basic instincts of the highly-adapted scrounger. Some of her best tricks, like securely holding down plates (or indeed more complicated receptacles) while she eats from them, have since been picked up by our other two bitches. She has also held onto the slightly more irksome accomplishment of digging trenches to lie in when she gets a bit overheated, and thankfully Cherry and Yuki are still behind the curve on this. It’s hard for us to know if she grew up feral or spent her formative years as a house dog, but we are inclined to the latter view.

She used to have a beau called Trompas. Trompas had owners, but was left outside most of the time and assumed the role of guardian of our avenue, a position that comes with both rights and duties.

Most of the residents fed Trompas and many felt a great affection for him. When his owners moved to another area, he escaped and returned within days. Later on, an abortive attempt to formally ‘foster’ him by a third party resulted in his disappearance and presumed demise.

Since then there have been several incumbents in the role that Trompas carried out to such great effect. The last two have had distinct fates: one was shot dead by the bored security guard of a local gated community, the other was adopted after a successful Facebook appeal. The vacancy never lasts long. It’s as if there’s an understudy waiting in the wings.




Thursday, April 07, 2016

Moribund

The Panama Papers have uncorked the geyser of middle class indignation. 
For much of its modern history Capitalism delivered prosperity and development and the only people getting a really raw deal were the workers. And, as a rule, the middle classes affected not to notice too much. 
There was a transition phase in the late twentieth century when even the proletariat seemed to be getting some of the benefits. Times were good. 
There had always been a super-rich elite driving the process, but until recently at least, the middle classes have been very much along for the ride. 
But then as the last century drew to a close the world's economy globalised rapidly, largely in response to technological change, and the middle classes have suddenly found themselves in the same boat as the hoi polloi. 
There are calls for local, national solutions to this problem. Some of these are well-meaning and some of these are...well, from Donald Trump. 
But this is a global problem - just like climate change - and local solutions simply won't cut it. 
The ethical critique as currently presented by the floundering bourgoisie is hypocritical at best. 
And it fails to recognise that just because the free of mind and free of wealth are oozing apart from the traditional nation state, does not mean these leaks can easily be caulked by legislation from within these moribund structures.


Friday, April 01, 2016

Utopian project

It was a little depressing to witness Niall Ferguson opinionating on the Syraqistan again in the Sunday Times this week - 'it takes a network to defeat a network'. 
Not quite as depressing as when politicians tag the space as 'evil' - eschatological narrative ahoy! - but this notion that it's really only a technical problem that clever people could solve given half the chance, is in many ways just as absurd. 
That he concluded with the suggestion that EU might be an appropriate network with which to counter the Islamic state only brought us closer to the real crux of the problem. 
ISIS is the stand-out utopian project in the world today. As such it has the power to enthuse - and confuse - individuals who feel disconnected from the national identities into which they were born. The EU on the other hand...


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gone in an instant...

Trust, as we all know, takes a long time to build, but can be forfeited in an instant. 

Unfortunately, I have been placed in a situation this week where, with one or two exceptions, I am no longer able to trust almost any member of my own family. 

Now, I am privileged to be connected via social media with several of the younger members of my wife's clan: bright, talented individuals whose trust I value very much. 

There are number of ways I could violate that trust, but consider this particular possibility. 


I take it upon myself to copy some material of a comparatively sensitive nature  a post, a picture or a comment — and then show it out of context to another member of the family, one of an older generation who is conspicuously not in the least au fait with these technologies and their basic ground rules.  


The wider consequences and damage done by this might be unforseeable, but on own my side at least, thoroughly predictable.


— I would be immediately un-friended

— The person I had thus betrayed would probably call me names like 'backstabbing scumbag'...and I'd be getting off lightly! 

— I would start to consider myself extremely fortunate if they ever spoke to me again. 


This all depends of course that I have been prepared to do what Guatemala's jailed former president calls 'show facein other words, acknowledge that in the act of breaking a family member's trust, one cannot really hold another family member to safeguarding the confidence that preserves one's anonymity. 



Monday, March 07, 2016

On closer scrutiny...

It’s almost too easy to point out the failings of Trump, Cruz, Sanders and Clinton as candidates for the world’s top job. But this time round the collective unsuitability of all of those who are standing has drawn our attention in more closely and I cannot be alone in having discerned that the system itself is somehow more execrable that even the Donald in full flow. 



It might not be so easy to put into words - to send up on a satirical sketch that has all them east-coasters in stitches - but the longer this process goes on under such heightened levels of scrutiny, more and more Americans are surely going to realise just how defective and fraudulent their two party democratic simulcrum has become. And the painful irony of this is that it makes a populist presidency more likely.


Cowspiracy

Highmindedness can be admirable. But highmindedness from a position of relative privilege that wants to become a 'movement' is a potential source for concern. 

Just how many people in the world would need to voluntarily turn to veganism for global sustainability to be achieved? If it were to succeed, how would such a movement avoid both conflicts externally and then coercion internally? 

The movie didn't volunteer an answer. It turned seriously preachy towards the end and its determination to talk about food strictly in terms of biological science ultimately smacked of philistinism. Dairy products as baby cow expansion juice...

I could go around telling everyone that we had chosen to remain childless for the good of the planet, and preach this as the sort of thing that all highminded folk from roughly my own demographic should follow. But, in the words of Rudolf Abel, would it help? 

Even in China, where there is a cultural bias towards surrendering individual choice for the good of the collective, state coercion was ultimately required and ultimately proved only passably effective. There were also unexpected adverse consequences to ponder. 

There always are - back in the 80s the outside interferers bemoaned Guatemala's high infant mortality rate. Problem solved. Now they decry the mortality rate from the crime wave created by a generation of grown-up unwanted children that the economy cannot adequately provide for. 

The history of the world's great international movements of highminded ethical change are not encourageing. Monotheistic faith revisions have fallen short of the 50% mark and there are indications that the voluntary nature of such commitments soon segue into systems of coercion and castigation. 


Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Change for change's sake

Millennials around the world are clearly disgusted with centrist politics, where one party's fundamental approach can hardly be distinguished from the next. It's just that they are too young to remember just how unpleasant the alternative tended to be. We now have electorates increasingly made up of people yearning for change for change's sake. The only difference is that this time they are by and large going to go about it without any firm ideological commitments...



No-brainer decision time

In order to avoid the nightmare populist and the ex-President's wife, Guatemala had to elect the clown. For the US the choice is more limited because the clown and nightmare populist come as part of the same package...




Monday, February 29, 2016

Greed is...

The standard contemporary political blame-game tells us that in our modern economies financial crashes occur due to ‘excessive greed’. Yet is important to understand that in some senses the meltdowns take place when people become individually LESS greedy. 

In really simplified terms...

During the good times an elite group of capital-rich individuals assume risks that most people either don’t want to assume or cannot assume. By and large they will rationally anticipate substantial returns provided that the risks don’t get the better of them between now and pay-day. 

Fast forward to the weeks or months before meltdown and the investing pack has expanded considerably. One might even say ‘democratised’ if one were inclined to be charitable. 

Collectively this group is now chasing a smaller reward, because the risks appear to have diminished. But whether we are talking about banks selling mortgages or private investors after their own little chunk of the tech boom bonanza, many of the people parting with their cash know that ‘sure thing’ investments are usually significantly over-priced. And many try to artificially re-create the original higher risk/higher reward conditions they missed out on via debt and other forms of ‘leverage’. 

Yet overall, they are individually at least chasing a more modest return than those who ‘bought cheap’ and can thus expect to clean up. So, which group is truly the greedier? Intuitively we are I think drawn to the wrong answer to this question — which is why the nuances of the term ‘greed’ are perhaps better suited to religious ethics than high finance. 

I had personal experience of a parallel phenomenon in the early 90s, when I was one of a small group of individuals who exited their career paths by way of the turning marked information superhighway. 

At the time very few people had heard of the Interwebs, let alone understood their transformative tendencies, but we were already true believers prepared to invest our projected future earnings in developing the medium’s potential. We correctly anticipated wave after wave of hazard ahead, but also a considerable return if we could find a way to weather them — so in that sense we were compelled by greed of the ‘long’ kind. 

As the Millennium approached our industry started to look very different, its personnel base now largely comprising frantic Johnny-come-latelies with options (often dubious) rather than equity in their pockets. And the mood of aggregated avarice was now palpable. These people were chasing the last crumbs and — mostly — knew it. The maelstrom of untethered desire that they kicked up drove the market over a precipice. 

The screenplay for Oscar-winning film 'The Big Short' demonstrated an implicit understanding of the topsy-turvy pre-crash world where mavericks inside the financial system could be taking on the ‘right’ kind of long positions, but based on shorting the system as a whole. And that this is happening because the ‘systemic’ problem is that the system has somehow come to be made up of dumb, irrational, bottom-feeders. 

Now, the fact that bottom-feeders are the essence of the problem does not a stirring political soundbite make. But our society’s most disreputable representatives of the type can be handily aggregated into something any populist politician can really get their teeth into: a ‘bank’ or, better still, ‘Wall Street’. 

These are not loose-associations of high-flying entrepreneurs but monolithic institutions which effectively dominate such a significant portion of our economic output that they can afford to reward even their least effective bottom-feeders in ways that anyone outside this milieux tends to find obscene. 

Such is the collective bargaining position of powerful, irrational greed in our society. There is no other sector other than finance where this kind of desperation and dumbness is so strongly incentivised by disproportionate returns. 'Curbing' this kind of greed will be no easy political task, because it has insinuated itself deeply into the natural habitat of the 'good', economically-beneficial sort of greed. 


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The rise of the poorly-educated

Trump’s celebration of the ‘poorly-educated’ as the smartest demographic in the land takes us right to the heart of the problem in modern society. 

Elite status didn’t used to be such a clear cognate of extreme wealth, even in the US. Social hierarchies used to support cultural hierarchies and these, unlike the former, surely have some innate value.

The elites of birth and power - political and economic - were heretofore more obviously complemented by a cultural elite which acted as a conduit between various areas of knowledge and achievement, permitting them to communicate between themselves and thus allowing society as a whole to benefit from the ideas which could only emerge as a result of this associative process. 


This predominantly talented and educated group effectively determined how much intellectual and aesthetic value ought to be dictated by money alone, but like other forms of regulation, it has since been largely overrun by ‘rational’ market forces and standards and priorities have thus started to drift all over the place.

It should hardly surprise us that former Mexican president Vicente Fox was today recoiling before the billionaire candidate’s ‘poverty of ideas’, when simply pursuing your own baser instincts now counts as some sort of grand intellectual journey. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Winning!

The last convulsion within capitalism was caused by America's 'un-performing' debt. The one just getting under way will largely be the result of China's, which has been estimated to be $5 trillion or 22% of all loans and equivalent to half that nation's economic output. It is also five times the not inconsiderable $1 trillion of toxic debt around Europe. 

Since the crash of 2008 the Chinese banking sector has grown its assets from $9 trillion to around $30 trillion, so nobody will have to wait this time for Wall Street to over-extend itself once again. 

The bad news from all this is that when the stock market crashes in election years the US almost inevitably changes administration - so President Trump here we come. If only because he does the whole 'winning' shtick better than Charlie Sheen...


Bug in the system

I was recently watching a political panel discussion on one of the US cable news networks when, by way of aside, one of the guests launched into a bombastic tirade about the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster. 'Fascist dictator, blah blah...' 

Just like many students at Oxford University he had fallen into the fallacy of thinking that the man and the statue of the man are precisely the same thing. The statue outside Parliament is surely not of the historical Lord Protector as such, but of the man as he was re-imagined by the Victorians. 

Yet Americans have good reason to fixate themselves on this rather dark personage from English history. Trump's ascendancy appears to signify the culmination of an alarming recent drift towards fascism on the starboard side of American politics - but listen closely to the rhetoric of the Christian right and you will start to hear the same backhanded pleas for tyranny behind all those chest-thumping adjurations of freedom that long ago accompanied the rise of Cromwell. It’s the original, ineradicable bug in the puritan prototype. 


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Two kinds of unbeliever...

A good deal of seemingly judicious anti-Islamic opinion is little more than bigotry dressed up as secular high-mindedness of one sort or another.

One should be aware however that there is a certain kind of secular outlook that maintains itself by feeding off the more traditional, ‘primitive’ sort of religious devotion.

It’s as if there were essentially two ways to be an unbeliever: the more self-contained or introverted way, and the more outward-facing way, that constantly plays off other people’s metaphysical wrong-headedness.

Islam — along with good ol’ gun-totin’, evolution-denying Pentacostalism in the US — has made itself available as the perfect foil for this sort of sparring just as the traditional religious outlook in western Europe has disintegrated into untold wishy-washy kinds of near-agnosticism that the more earnest kind of atheist finds it hard to get his or her teeth into.

I’m not sure that there are many purely self-contained unbelievers out there. I strive to be one myself, but it’s undoubtedly hard not to feel just a bit provoked by the resurgent irrationalism and militant ignorance out there in the ether today.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to postpone the contemplation of the deeper, darker implications of a godless universe by instead spending one’s time blaspheming against multiple faith traditions.

It should possibly come as no surprise that Europe’s most visibly secular nations — France, Denmark etc. — have become the channels of Europe’s most overtly xenophobic currents.

What is getting lost in all this is the comprehension that the ‘ignorance’ of someone who is already at multiple disadvantages including relative poverty and discrimination is frankly an embarrassingly soft target, and that rational unbelievers have something of a duty to prioritise going after the sort of dumbness for which there is hardly any excuse.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Great noshspots of Central America #1: The Coctelería Cajun

Located in what is essentially the armpit of the Yucatán in more ways than one, Ciudad del Carmen is perhaps not over-brimming with highlights for the casual visitor, but this ever-buzzing restaurant is undoubtedly one of them. 




The thing is that the Gulf coast of the peninsula is know to serve up the finest seafood anywhere in this region - especially shrimp - and there's possibly only one other joint in Campeche where I would perhaps prefer to partake of it. (For another day...)

The Coctelería Cajun is traditional, basic and very popular; the apparent cheapness of the decor and associated ambience ought not to deter. Wooden tables and chairs are crammed into a walled off front yard with an especially high turnover between midday and the late afternoon. 

A few caveats vis-a-vis my earlier, rather disparaging remarks about the location. The Isla del Carmen sits on the beautful Laguna de Términos just shy of the point where the peninsula bleeds into Tabasco. It is linked by an undulating causeway to Isla Aguada to the north, which is indeed a perfect place to take in the charms of the more unspoiled stretches of Yucatán coastline. 

The city itself has a compact historical casco with some fine pastel-painted casonas worthy of the state capital itself. 


Friday, January 22, 2016

Kate del Castillo....

The Mexican soap star is really circling the drain now...

What strikes me about this particular 'celebrity' interview - possibly the most ill-conceived attempt to intervene in the discourse by a person other than an actual public intellectual since Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam - was that none of the three named protagonists had a good enough reason to take the implied risks, possibly because they simply hadn't thought them through. An article in Rolling Stone magazine was certainly not sufficient cause, on paper at least.

Fonda could at least more easily couch her presumption in humanitarian terms even as she, as Penn has now done, blithely dis-respected all those who put their lives on the line against a national foe.

All three were undoubtedly successful in their existing fields, but surely had a significant itch to be something more. El Chapo might have had the hots for Kate, but was clearly also smitten with the ability of her character to live a life of apparent legitimacy amongst the sheikhs and oligarchs of Marbella. 

Ironically, while the capo craved her existence, del Castillo now seems set to end up with his...


Thursday, December 31, 2015

A compromised ideal

The ideas many of us in the West share about personal autonomy, democratic government, private property etc. that fall under the wider banner of liberalism emerged under the aegis of the Christian Reformation and were given a very significant leg-up by the rapid expansions of capitalism and colonialism.

We hold many of these ideas very dear, and imagine that the world would be a better place should they one day be adopted universally...and yet, sadly, there is just no getting away from the fact that they are irrevocably entangled with both the distortions of religion and the ascendancy of a certain type of wealthy elite.


This has never really prevented us from doggedly pursuing the oxymoronic dream of a purer pluralism.


The local archetype

I say this not without a modicum of self-reproach and retro-repentance, but it's quite incredible how almost every male ex-pat I come across (and then, duly avoid) in this town, is some sort of narcissistic middle-aged man-child...


Thursday, November 26, 2015

A few words on fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is an outlook that habitually fuses religious and worldly motivations, so we should be extremely cautious before taking the self-justifications of any fundamentalist at face value. 

Just because the Paris attackers claimed to be acting in the interests of their faith should not blind us to the fact that a purely religious interpretation of what they did is perhaps the least plausible. 

Relevant thinkers in our own political back-story such as Hobbes and Harrington looked upon the partisan fanatics of their own days and understood that much of their assertion of divine sanction was most often a mere cloak for barely-sublimated earthly objectives. 

On this day that Americans cast a rose-tinted glance back at their fundamentalist founding fathers, let us remember that the great irony of Puritanism was that in seeking to impose a fixed and intolerant vision on society, it created just the right amount of abject chaos that pluralism and tolerance were able to take shape, largely inadvertently, and to be accepted as important elements of social cohesion. 

Up until this point the only known solution to the largely negative impact of competing worldviews in post-medieval Europe had been autocratic rule. Nobody really pushed freedom of conscience as a political programme until it became rather a fact of life by default. In banning dancing, music and the like, the Puritans were in some senses Talibanesque, but they were beset by so many theological contortions, that they ended up with little option other than grudging mutual acceptance. 

In a week in which the British Parliament gets ready to vote on whether bombing should be part of the long-term solution to fundamentalism in the middle east, it should be noted that in many instances totalist systems are inherently self-degrading. It's just a shame that the Nazi metaphor continues to trump all those others, where all the pluralists had to do really was sit and wait. 

Anyway, it's a matter of record tat out of the intolerance of the men and women who sat down to munch on the first Thanksgiving turkey, there would emerge a current within western thinking where noncomformism and dissent could mean something more like common sense than customised delusion and bloodymindedness.  

Of course, in much of America it still means...




Saturday, October 17, 2015

Homeland, Season 5

Many aspects of popular culture in the English-speaking world today appear to have been crafted to erect an invisible wall keeping us locked within our localised realities. Even the travel shows appear to whispering 'stay at home' subliminally. 
Some people have quipped that Homeland has the wrong title for a show now seemingly set anywhere but the terra firma of mainstream American life. But that would be to miss the clear underlying, reverse-psychology payload of a show that wants its viewers to understand that in foreign parts only the US embassy and its associated compounds are secure - and as as we saw in Season 4 back in the 'hell-hole' that is Karachi, sometimes not even them. 
This time out Carrie has been visiting Beirut, one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban environments around the Mediterranean, here depicted as marginally less attractive as a weekend break destination than say Kabul or Mogadishu. Along the way even Berlin has been receiving obliquely some of that Stephen Fry in Central America treatment. 
In this sense 'Homeland' represents the full about-turn within the modern espionage genre, for which distant locations always used to be 'exotic' and 'exciting', but now these adjectives seem to habitually carry the hidden suffix 'dangerous' in parentheses. 
I'm looking forward to 007's forthcoming jolly in Mexico City, because the Bond franchise is still grounded in its ancient 'anywhere but dreary London' premise, and still doesn't quite push the message that a license to kill is probably a prerequisite for any form of travel to the Latin America or the Middle East.



Friday, September 04, 2015

Pausing for pity

Otto looked utterly exhausted as he left the court today, his voice strained. He claims he could easily have escaped into exile, but has chosen to face the music.

It's hard not to feel sorry for him — and his abandoned dog in spite of everything. The spectacle of the mighty fallen is always somewhat disturbing.

I don't think I could ever muster the same kind of compassion for that gangster and clown Manuel Baldizón. 

I think Otto more or less believes the self-image he has consistently projected - as a man of honour. He must have thrown all the bad stuff into a little box at the back of his psyche.

Whatever happens now he's royally screwed. Even if he can convince a judge that the conspiracy was going on all around him and he really had no active part in it, they will get him for 1982 now. He'll be the surrogate Rios Montt in no time at all. 

And then there's Gerardi, and any other skeletons they find in his cupboard now that he has been deprived of immunity.

He's fully stretched out on the public altar of sacrifice and it really doesn't matter what he did or didn't do, because he has become a living symbol of the past 60 years that has to be ritually purified from the body politic.

The media have started to address him as 'General' once again...


What's next?

The levels of contagion to the north and south will be fascinating to observe.

Mexico had a convoluted revolution which began before WWI and ultimately resulted in a long-lasting one party system that in its latter phases paid lip-service to democratic values and practices, but was widely referred to elsewhere as 'the perfect dictatorship'. 

It is almost twice as wealthy as Guatemala with a well-resourced state and the levels of public-sector larceny perpetrated by the outgoing regime here might not cause such an unsightly dent up there. 

Yet Peña Nieto's public persona has something of the Baldetti about it...

To the south El Salvador and Honduras have many of the same problems, often in an even more pronounced state, but they appear to have already missed the boat in terms of confronting them as a united pueblo. There is now an entrenched polarity in their political discourse between populists and those in favour of more transparent system, as in Venezuela.

The same could happen here if Baldizón 'cause' is allowed to prosper. And yet, worryingly, all kinds of unpleasantness could also yet tarnish Guatemala's spring if the strict letter of the law is observed and his Líder party debarred from the election with just three days to go.

The protest movement clearly has great momentum and is unlikely to be thinking in terms of this kind of practical compromise right now.


Thank you Roxana!


Guatemala was fortunate in its ex-President's choice of running mate. Her obvious doltishness and blatant disregard for even the most basic of veneers, turned what would otherwise have seemed like those all-too-familiar and disregarded grievances about corruption into something that diverse sectors of Guatemala could really get their teeth into  and more importantly generate further awareness through a combination of youthful outrage and mordant satire on social media. 

Linea 1 y Linea 2

With all this talk of corruptos and corruptores we need to be keep an eye on some important distinctions. 

If I am head of state and a businessman pays me a backhander in return for an important contract, the private sector side of this deal could be characterised as the corrupter. But if as head of state, I establish a system whereby businessmen of all sorts can get a discount on duties, I become the primary corrupter.

In the first instance the businessman pays a premium to secure a contract and the politician pockets the premium. Only in certain hybrid cases - such as lake Amatitlán - is there a significant social cost to this sort of graft. 

But when the government itself is set up as a scam, the social cost operates on a multiplier as schools want for books, hospitals lack medicines etc.


Of course there are all sorts of criminals in Guatemala, some very well organised and deeply entrenched in the commercial sector. But there is a very significant category distinction between theft and treason, which is reflected in the criminal penalties which apply. 

Otto acted as a traitor. His actions subverted the rule of law, plundered public resources from the state and led, not-so-indirectly, to actual deaths. 

He was not just the hapless mayordomo of the real capos who have now sacrificed him. He was the head of state. To suggest otherwise is to pander to his own self-serving rhetoric about the corruptores around government. 

What hope can anyone have for improving this society if the chief executive is not on board with the project in both thought and action?





Table Talk

Prince Phillip once famously observed that the Chinese will eat anything that has four legs as long as it isn't a table. This little witticism sprung to mind this morning when a Japanese friend messaged me with the seemingly innocuous question 'Is there anything you don't eat?'

However, given that the last time we shared a table together (no, not that way...) was when he led me into Shinjuku's 'Piss Alley' for some horse sashimi  surely at least in part a bate the Brit exercise  I might have to prepare a shortlist of non-comestible quadrupeds for all such enquiries in future...

Don't dismiss the consensus narrative

Perceptions and narratives are very important to the course of history. If one simply complains that the beliefs of historical actors are a poor facsimile of reality, one is missing the chance to fully understand their impact on events in real time. They inform the discourse, and in doing so, shape the landscape of possible actions.

Right now a narrative has formed around the meaning of this week's events in Guatemala. It goes a bit like this...

The country has come full circle since 1954. Back in the early 50s it was a beacon of political possibility for the whole of Latin America, with newly-established systems of public health and education. But then the US intervened to remove the democratically-elected, reform-minded government and a protracted civil conflict ensued in which perceptions of possibility were often violently constrained.

Now Guatemalans have made it back, after 60 difficult years, to roughly where they were before. Once more a beacon of hope for the region, this nation remains a far from a completed project, but its citizens are once again free to pursue a better future.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hearts of Darkness

I read an article last night that suggested that all ordinary middle class Americans who moan about the death of Cecil the lion and are not either veggies or vegans, or at least completely disgusted by the mere thought of battery-caged chicken, are actually complete and utter hypocrites. Rather tellingly, this opinion piece was on an investment website targeting rich white men. 
This is misdirection, pure and simple. This issue at hand would perhaps be more easy to comprehend and reject if there were no unfortunate, 'much loved' animal involved. 

Think about the movie Hostel - an extreme vision of how men with money behave outside their normal territorial/legal boundaries. And consider how hard it has been to dispel the suspicion that the deaths of hundreds of women in and around Ciudad Juárez are the grisly consequence of some sick sport undertaken by men who have grown just a bit tired of golf. 
As an example from lower down the spectrum one could point to the gringos one regularly sees here in Antigua driving around fully intoxicated. It's as if they feel that the norms of law-abiding behaviour somehow don't apply. And one suspects that this is unfortunately the main reason that many American men choose to reside south of the border. (One of the first American ex-pats to spend a chunk of his younger years in Antigua Guatemala - Gore Vidal - did not set the very best example to those who followed. Think Lord Byron in Albania.) 
INGUAT could even target these people with an ad campaign: "Come on down and experience that same exhilarating feeling of untouchable privilege that back home only the 1% can tap into..."


Thursday, May 07, 2015

Polling Day....

At the end of WWII scientists went about trying to understand why human beings do really bad things - especially when told to do by authority figures - with a new urgency. 
The psychological tests done then and repeated again and again over half a century have revealed the following with some consistency: When asked to do something morally repugnant by an authority figure, only 10-20% of people take up the offer to be given something else to do instead. 70-80% do what they are asked to do and 10% go a bit further, adding their own customised cruelties to the process. 
I have always taken these results to indicate that around 70% of a given population (or workforce!) will put up with whatever rotten system they are obliged to live under - and occasionally participate more actively therein. The likely combined proportion of the vote enjoyed by the two main Westminster parties as we go into the election today indirectly supports this research. 
Perhaps Russell Brand is in a sense right about the state of our political systems, but wrong in his further explanation and prognosis. Like many Guatemalans he fails to see that the problem is not the political elite in isolation. One has to factor in the self-defeating attitudes and behaviours of a large part of the democratic electorate. 
When it comes to moral responsibility many large companies today operate an individual opt-out system, which, interestingly enough, was pretty much what the Nazis did as well. In 'Ordinary Men', Christopher R. Browning examines the case of some German policemen who were sent to the Ukraine, where they were quickly assigned to genocide duties. These guys were in the main working class social democrats with minimal Nazi sympathies before the war. It was explained to them that if they objected to killing Jews, they could ask to be transferred to other duties. Around 10% did. 
The self-exclusion system does of course effectively pre-empt any questioning of whether the collective itself is on completely the wrong course...


Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Diversity Problem

Western Europe had a more or less unified worldview until the end of the fifteenth century. There were variations within this 'eucumene' and some of them were treated pretty brutally, while others were allowed to contribute to the society's inner dialectic. 
When this universal way of dealing with reality started to disintegrate, whole societies were pulled apart and many hundreds of thousands died in the resulting wars of religion. Diversity it seemed, was not a good thing. 
The Western world thus had to develop a number of treatments for the pathological and chronic civil disorder that significant, uncontrolled differences of religious opinion had brought forth. One of these was the coercive state, but of course this introduced tensions of its own. 
At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of revolutions which pointed to two contrasting long-term solutions to the problem. The first  the American  was grounded in the notion that people could hold very different opinions about the meaning of life and not want to do horrible things to each other. The second  the French — explored the possibility of an alternative, secular, one-size-fits-all system. (Get with the programme or the representatives of the collective will indeed do horrible things to you.) 
In the course of the twentieth century these two strands of western political thinking engaged in a near apocalyptic confrontation, and after the biggest body count in history, victory appeared to belong to the liberal, pluralistic approach to human diversity. 
But look closer and the situation has proved to be more problematic. A significant minority within the tradition of the American revolution have been putting themselves about in a more dogmatic and altogether less tolerant fashion. It could also be said that the totalitarian approach had not so much been conclusively defeated on the battlefield or in the debating chamber, but had instead collapsed much like the earlier medieval consensus as a result of failing to respond to the totality of human aspiration. 
The bloody conflict between the two western secularisms brought an end to the region's imperial ambitions and as a consequence, peoples with a very different historical experience of the same basic problem and its related coping mechanisms started to migrate into the heart of western Europe. 
This did not initially set off a new outbreak of the old pathology until the world's economy started to globalise and geographical barriers between cultures were effectively compromised by what the optimists dubbed the information super-highway. 'Progress', that great utopian goal of the liberal society, now appears to be seriously threatened by the disordered timelines of contemporary reality. 
Many people look at the 'threat' posed by political Islam today and instinctively refer back to the medieval 'clash of civilisations'. In this type of discourse 'medieval' equals primitive, but in fact the Islam that confronted the unified Christian doctrine of that period was in many ways far more rational and sophisticated. It was also a key part of the intellectual trajectory of the West in the years before the generalised splintering of perspectives. 
The Islam which is today seemingly reopening the West's old wound is a strange combination of distant historical and geographical throwback with a religious reworking of the totalitarian project. In other words a two-pronged mutant antagonist for the rather naïve view that things will now sort themselves out to the advantage of pluralism without the need for further conflict - because the advantages of cohabiting with people who see the world in a fundamentally different way are 'obvious'.
Meanwhile, is it any wonder that the intrusive, coercive state threatens a comeback?



Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Welsh wally comes to Guatemala...

Every time one of those - admittedly flawed - surveys of global happiness is published, the nations of Central America figure close to the top of the chart. 

And yet every time an article appears in the global media about Guatemala, or indeed some of its neighbours, readers are invited to consider these countries as encapsulating all their worst dystopic social nightmares: murder, child abuse, corruption etc. etc. I used to put this down to ignorance or at least the love of sensationalism within the western media, but this week, with the release of that despicably manipulative Michael Sheen video I am starting to detect something more deliberate. 

I can't tell you how sick I am of articles which suggest that the insecurity that Guatemala experiences today is a continuation of the 'civil conflict' of 1960-1996 which, it is commonly suggested, normalised the population to high levels of violence. This is complete and utter BOLLOCKS. Next-door Belize was a nice ordered place run by the Brits during most of the same period, and yet today has an even higher homicide rate. As does Jamaica for that matter, or indeed the US Virgin Islands, neither of which, tellingly, are targeted by the media as western hemisphere equivalents of Somalia. 

No, this violence is largely a consequence of America's cack-handed 'War on Drugs' and has little connection with Guatemala's long struggle to restore political legitimacy. 

Growing up in 70s Britain I was exposed to more political violence than my Guatemalan wife and the rest of her family. Three IRA bombs went off close enough to my home to shake the walls so violently that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that I was a little traumatised. 

The Guatemalan civil war was in contrast very un-Syria like. The vast majority of the urban population could be forgiven for going about their lives as if nothing much was really happening. For two decades the regular army engaged various rag-tag guerilla outfits in the hinterland. In the latter stages of the conflict, thanks in large part to an American counter-insurgency doctrine derived from its Vietnam experience, there was a scorched earth campaign in the predominantly Mayan provinces of Guatemala now widely characterised as genocide. But today, these are the very regions of the country where violence and insecurity are less pronounced than in the metropolitan core. So, these apparent crimes against humanity surely cannot be said to have lastingly accustomed the local population to placing a low valuation on human life.

The one connection that can be made between the civil war and the present condition of the country relates to the way it was wrapped up. The UN insisted that as a condition of the peace accords, that the Guatemalan army should be dramatically reduced in size. As a consequence of this well-intentioned imprudence - not unlike the equally dunderheaded American disbandment of the Iraqi army in 2003 - the country was suddenly flooded with out of work majors and colonels who immediately took up with organised crime. 

Back in the 1980s UNICEF's biggest beef against Guatemala was infant mortality. This problem has receded and as a result the population has grown by 2m in two decades. 1m Guatemalans also now live legally and illegally in the US. The economy grows at a healthy 3-4% rate per annum, but this is still not enough to provide sufficient economic opportunity for all the young people. 

The timing of the UNICEF film to coincide with Joe Biden's visit last week is surely no coincidence. The Central American nations have asked for $15bn to deal with the issue of economic migration - especially that of unattended minors - and one has to surmise that the Obama administration has an interest in finding a way to maximise the private contribution to the forthcoming inflow of funds. 

The broader issue of population dynamics and economic migration is one that American culture and politics are simply not geared up to face in an honest manner. The Republican party is racist at heart and would rather build a bigger wall along the southern frontier. Meanwhile the Democrats have found a way to deal with the problem is via a disturbingly paternalistic reflex - the surplus humanity can be only admitted into the USA via adoptions or, failing that, by considering all Central American children as 'refugees' from hopelessly endemic violence. 





Monday, February 23, 2015

Take out the train?

ISIS has become a kind of memetic ebola for the gloablised, terrorised world. The predominant discourse emanating from the western media makes this clear: the 'death cult', they would have us understand, is a kind of mind virus from which no (muslim) person is safe. The message we are supposed to be taking from this is that it doesn't matter that the vast majority of so-called ordinary muslims are appalled by the way the caliphate carries on, they are nevertheless deemed SUSCEPTIBLE - and rather like the hapless passengers on that train in 'Cassandra Crossing', the small portion that are actually infected with the deadly plague should not be taken as an indication that the authorities' response ought to be proportionate and discriminating.




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can't make up my mind about Flanagan's Man Booker winner. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but on another, grumpier, day I might have awarded it three or even two. 
The overall effect of the story is undeniably 'powerful', yet I think this, coupled with flashes of brilliant writing, disguises the deeper flaws. The structure is patchy and seems to conform to no particular logic or set perspective. This was a doubt I picked up early on and dragged with me through the compelling mid-section and beyond. None of the characters really amount to very much either. The whole young officer's affair with married woman detour reeks of Birdsong, a comparison that ends up flattering the Faulks novel more. 

The two late chapters that specifically sketch the post-war psychologies of the Korean camp guard and Nakamura, the Japanese commandant, come across as artificial set pieces - and the novel has plenty of these, including a forest fire in Tasmania that is just a bit too Michael Bay for my taste. (And thus a blatant piece of Tinseltown bait.) 

I've read that Flanagan was attempting to retell his own father's experiences on 'the line'. My suspicion is that one of the ordinary soldiers (the bugler perhaps) is the real cipher for his father's story and that the figure of Dorrigo Evans is the more contrived and conflicted protagonist that the author presumably thought such a tale would require.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ched Evans Saga

Another day another unreconstructed British male has been forced to apologise for opining that Ched Evans was 'probably innocent'. Expressing an opinion on this issue is clearly a potentially hazardous business, but I can't resist the temptation, because the case is so revealing about contemporary British attitudes to things like sex and celebrity, justice and forgiveness. 

As the victim had no memories of what transpired at the Premier Inn, it's clear that unless subsequently assisted by a hypnotist, it must have been her who first started this game of assessing the probabilities. This leaves Evans and his co-defendant Clayton McDonald as the only witnesses to the sexual encounter they had rather naively fessed up to the day after. How anyone else is able to make any authoritative judgments regarding the probability of what happened is beyond me. It was a straightforward case of their word against her silence. As far as the facts go, nobody else can have an opinion that gets much beyond speculation. 


Anyway, someone must have failed to brief the jury on the standard legal nicety of 'beyond reasonable doubt', as set aside any obvious doubts they did, concluding that while a nineteen-year-old girl who has consumed four vodkas and a sambuca would NOT be too drunk to consent to sex with one footballer, she would however be too drunk to consent to have sex with a second footballer who showed up a bit later and joined in. The level of drunkenness had presumably not changed, just the number of simultaneous sexual partners. 


In the absence of facts character had to be judged here - the jury had to decide whether - according to modern British sexual mores - which member of the threesome was the person of bad(dest) character. 

If both footballers had been found innocent as charged, the implication would have been that the victim was the sort of girl who was generally up for it. Conversely, if both footballers had been found guilty as charged, all possible suggestion that she was anything other than a chaste young woman waiting for Mr Right - until that last little shot of Italian fire water ruined everything - would have been dispelled. 

But the jury would have understood that under normal circumstances people who do stupid things when drunk tend to appear up in the dock not beside the QC for the prosecution, and so probably figured out quite quickly that the solution to this moral dilemma might just be to find only one of the two lascivious footballers guilty. Which is what they did. 

And the problem for Ched Evans is that he had left himself open to character judgments whatever the jury thought about the behaviour of his victim, or indeed his co-shagger.  At the time he had a long-term girlfriend and yet there he was cruising around a small town in Wales unable to resist the temptation of a spontaneous threesome in a cheap hotel. An obvious toe-rag if ever there was one. 

And thus, as the only way to ascertain the facts of the situation was the assess the moral worth of each of the three participants, Evans would come under this scrutiny pre-compromised, not only because his behaviour was unethical regardless of the facts - which could only be surmised - but because as a minor celebrity of the sort we all have a love-hate relationship with, it was always going to be easy to present him with the bill for that particular pact with the devil. 

Was Ched Evans guilty of rape? Only he knows, really. He clearly thinks otherwise. Is he a chap of low character? The British vocal majority thinks so, and in spite of the underlying prudishness of the verdict that put him in jail - Britain's vocal majority is almost certainly right on this one. And unfortunately for Evans he sits close to a tipping point: not quite talented enough to be forgiven by default and not quite un-famous enough for nobody to care. 

Is this sufficient reason for him to be denied a lucrative new contract with the devil? It's a tricky one. As he has been so sure he is not a rapist, he has failed to apologise for being a scumbag - the real reason he was convicted, dressed up for the benefit of legal precedent as an evaluation of intoxication levels vs capacity for consent that seems the more nebulous the more you think about it. This failure to fess up to being a bit of a degenerate, coupled with Wednesday's cack-handed non-apology, only compounds the problem. 

The diabolical contract of celebrity involves a certain degree of hypocritical pretense that the ball-kickers we pay an extraordinary amount of money have to be admirable to children. Ched Evans 'the convicted rapist' is going to be hard to repackage as an idol. And even if his conviction for rape were one day overturned, we'd still have no real reason to re-assess his character would we? The comparatively blokey north of England might not care too much about this, but finds itself joined up to the same media and communications network as the rest of the country. 

The case has certain echoes of the Oscar Pistorius trial. There we saw a judge rather than a jury tackle a similar dilemma. Clearly the principle of 'reasonable doubt' was not lost on her, so as far as the facts as known were concerned, she could do nothing else but find Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder, while leaving herself with just enough leeway for jailing him for his obvious character faults anyway. He won't be a sponsor's dream when he gets out either...


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Conscious cluelessness

My family and the families of the majority of the people I grew up with have been bourgeois for several generations. This means that as the years march on by, stuff that was acquired maybe a century ago in the first flush of affluence trickles down towards us. 

To take just one example, my peers and I tend to have a basic understanding of the value of silver. I mention this because my recent visit to Taxco  Mexico's traditional hot spot for the mining of that precious metal and the fabrication of artifacts from it — left me scratching my head a little. All tours to the city are obliged to stop at one of the big workshops on the outskirts. Arriving visitors are handed a basket, plied with tequila and encouraged to start loading up with trinkets. However, in my own case, the prices on the labels represented a rather obvious barrier to participation. 

For instance, I spotted various sets of newly-hewn cutlery that were on sale at an average price of $12,000. Now I happen to know that a set of top quality antique silver cutlery can be purchased on ebay for less than a fifth of that. Surely these Mexican artisans, working right beside the famous Taxco vein, would be doing a brisker trade if they passed on some of their lower costs and thus offered visitors a clear proposition in terms of value? One that say pandered to the notion that they might have taken the time to become informed before entering the fray? 

It's the sort of misgiving I often feel about the manner in which prices are set in parts of Central America...

La Tostaduría Antigua on 6a Calle Poniente sells a pound of coffee for Q200 (softening the blow with the nonsense offer of a free cup of coffee with each bag purchased). This is pricier, almost incredibly, than a pound of the finest gourmet coffee from the Zelaya family's Finca Santa Clara....all the way across the ocean at Fortnum & Mason in London. And that comes in a tin that's worth forking out ten quid for in itself! 

The 'Fortnum's Test' can be applied elsewhere: a slice of Manchego cheese will be both more expensive and less yummy for example when purchased from Antigua delicatessen Pal Paladar than when acquired at its more illustrious equivalent in Piccadilly. 

These enterprises appear to have made the conscious decision to price their product according to what they deem a certain target consumer is able to pay, as opposed to say the underlying economics of their own business model. The prevalence of this tactic would suggest that it must, to some extent at least, work. 

Tellingly, the members of our tour group in Taxco that appeared to have the least concern for value were the Chinese. And this got me thinking about how it's the newly-emerging middle class that is possibly the easiest social group to exploit economically, because their otherwise rational purchasing decisions are so often scrambled by the need to reinforce status through consumption. In short, a group for whom spending  and being seen to spend  is often an end in itself. Conscious cluelessness, if you like. 

Guatemala has its own, albeit more fragile version of an emerging middle class, which one can detect most easily by looking for strange distortions in the relationship between price and value on the 'high street', especially here in Antigua, and in the more aspirational product areas. 

The wine trade is a particularly illuminating example, though much of what can be said of it could also be said of the restaurant business for which it might act as a handy analogue. For a start, most of the quality and value-for-money is to be found around the lower price points. Indeed, pretty soon after the bill or receipt reaches a certain threshold, the quality will tail off dishearteningly into mediocrity. 

A wine costing in excess of Q60 at the Bodegona will quite often be nowhere near as tasty in terms of quality or value as those sold for less.  Now, over the past ten years this venerable supermarket-substitute has increased the range of different wines it purveys, but this has had no real impact on the underlying value structure. In fact, five or so years ago when the selection on the shelves had at least the appearance of restricted variety, some really very good wines would occasionally  and all too briefly  turn up in the mid-price bracket. (e.g. Marques de Riscal...).

There are a number of obvious reasons for this. Take firstly the demand side. Many young Guatemalan consumers of plonk are the first generation in their family to do so and are often aware of the cachet that comes with this. They did not grow up in a major wine-producing country and were usually not introduced to the habit by well-informed parents during their adolescence. Thus they are more likely to be swayed by price as the predominant yardstick of quality, because it's the per bottle cost that has been acting as a limiter on the extent of their experience of different wines. 

Then the supply side. Wines imported from European countries such as Spain, will tend to be more expensive in order to reflect the transportation overheads. So, like the Manchego cheese at Pal Paladar, it doesn't really matter if it is a rather lacklustre product in the refrigerated display, because the premium seemingly derives from the distance. 

Most of the wines on sale in Guatemala hail however from the bottom end of South America, where the more interesting low-volume vineyards sell most of their best vino up front to the restaurant and retail sectors of the developed world. That leaves a small ocean of surplus, less delicious stuff that needs to be branded up ('Frontera', 'Casillero del Diablo' etc.) and flogged at developed world prices here to the likes of Guatemala's only partially-discerning consumers. 

In Antigua it's the particular combination of visiting and ex-pat gringos combined with a young, aspirational middle class that makes this sort of marketing so prevalent. The gringos can't spot the problem with the price because they are used to paying  in a largely non-transparent way  taxes on the sale of alcohol which have no equivalent here, and the local, nascently-sophisticated yuppies can't spot the problems with quality and value because there is so little superior, affordable wine on sale here. 

Having a significant chunk of population that will pay whatever you ask for your product regardless of value has always worked well for perfume manufacturers. It may indeed account for the resemblance of certain Asian cities like Hong Kong to hypertrophied Duty Free shops and China's rampant economic growth on a wider scale might be said to owe a great deal to the demographic that lives to spend. Conversely, the apparent faltering of the US as global economic leader might be put down to the fact that relative affluence is now less of a novelty for many American families that make up the middle orders. 

Yet here in the developing world I would contend that a system which pays the emerging middle classes salaries which reflect local conditions and yet encourages to spend as if they resided in the developed world is one that is not only going to leave that group permanently over-extended and vulnerable, it is also going to widen the chasm between them and the less upwardly-mobile classes in the agricultural and informal sectors  a phenomenon which does not strike me as the best way forward for the Guatemalan economy in terms of even development. 

Here in Antigua a fila of pan frances at almost any bakery costs Q2, yet an order of Naan bread at our local pseudo-Indian eatery Ganesh will set you back Q25. Bear in mind that this is not a piece of flatbread that has been baked to order in an open stone oven in the traditional Indian manner, but rather something that is highly likely to have been removed from the freezer and warmed to approximate-palatability in a microwave for several minutes. 

Not only will whole swathes of the population find it impossible to overleap this, on the face of it, somewhat absurd and counterproductive pricing chasm, they would not be far wrong should they conclude that its hardly worth the bother anyway, as it represents for them, to use the appropriate British phrase, a bit of a rip-off.