Friday, July 01, 2016

Flight to the far edges...

There is a flight from the centre towards the far left and the far right. 

Those involved in the flight to the left - Sanders and Corbyn supporters say - have to be aware that an equal and opposite movement to reactionary extremism is happening at the same time. 

And that the two phenomena may not be disconneted. History certainly seems to suggest otherwise. 

They can look back at the Spanish Civil War and think 'ooh I would have supported the Republic', but what they should be thinking is that the Spanish Civil War was something worth preventing at all costs. 

Another example of the wood and trees bias problem flagged up below. 

We need to temper our ideas and resulting actions with a sense of context. 




The most annoying of all cognitive biases...

In the course of the past week I may have referred to people who voted LEAVE on at least one occasion as ‘ignorant and stupid’. While some undoubtedly are, many surely are not.

The real problem is that many of them belong to the group of people who at almost every stage of my adult life - academic, professional and social - have made me want to shuffle off into a corner and spontaneously combust.

This is that group of people who are unable to see the wood from the trees. (Though sometimes its the trees from the wood!)

For many this does seem to result from some innate cognitive bias.

Some of these people will however be considered otherwise smart and cultured in many of the contexts in which they operate.

The majority within the group as a whole may suffer the condition only occasionally, and then as result of some sort of situational stimulus or distorted perspective.

And this is essentially the problem with trusting a referendum to resolve really vital issues like our membership of the EU. The very nature of the format is sure to produce a sort of compound of limited, localised perspectives, not entirely unlike that of the famous fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Parliamentary democracy is not there to act as some sort of sinister system of control, constantly thwarting our democratic urges, it is there to help our society transcend our individual limitations, to be something more than the sum of our parts.


Idioms

In abandoning his plan to restore surplus by 2020, the Chancellor George Osborne said today that...

'We will fix the roof when the sun is shining.'

How very un-Chapin of him. 

Ther equivalent saying here would be something along the lines of...

'We'll cross that bridge when there's a flash flood and maybe the bridge isn't even there any more.'




Conspiracies

There are two kinds of conspiracy. Firstly, those which are underpinned by an element of truth and secondly, those which can only either be spot on or spot off. 

So when Icke and his like say the EU is a faceless bureaucracy serving the interests of big business, they are tapping into the first kind. When they suggest that Hillary Clinton is a flesh-eating lizard in a rubber mask, or that Neocons brought down the twin towers, they are tapping into the second. 

Further examples of the first kind...

  • The internet is a playground for pervs and paedophiles
  • Islam is a dangerous religion
  • White working class people are missing out on housing and other social services due to uncontrolled immigration
  • Michael Gove is a flesh-eating lizard (Boom tish!)

The latter category of conspiracy is undoubtedly becoming more prevalent in contemporary discourse, perhaps because the purveyors of paranoia have seen how the impersonal forces of globalisation have left more and more people feeling disempowered, and thus susceptible. 

Even those who have specialised in Type II conspiracies - like David Icke - have widened their repertoire to include more of the Type I narratives. 

So, where does the whole 'Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable' conspiracy fit into this? First kind or second kind? 

Like chemtrails or 'the Mexicans are about to attack', it looks like a binary at first glance. However...


On it

Cats are surely the living embodiment of nature and its fundamental processes. Whenever something changes in their environment, whenever a new niche appears, however small, they are totally on it within minutes...


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ensaladas de Huevones

My latest auxilliary blog project. 

A one stop portal for sightings from across Central America of some of the most pathetic efforts ever made at garnishing a dish. 




Telling it as it is...

Modern democratic politics is about managing the gap between the way things are and the way things out to be. This is why one should always raise an eyebrow or two at any so-called politician self-identifying as one of those that 'tells it as it is'. Either they are missing the point, or they are being dangerously disingenuous. 


I am a migrant...

Nigel Farage has managed to persuade millions of Britons to loathe legal immigration in much the same way that millions of Americans appear to loathe illegal immigration. This is a not inconsiderable political achievement. 

He has accomplished this by deploying many of the techniques the Donald as been practicing on his own willing dupes across the pond; interweaving forebodings of supplantation, sexual violence, terror and more into a compound sense of all-round unease with otherness. 

I too am a migrant — an exile if you must — living largely at the discretion of my host nation. 

I reside in a city that benefits enormously on many levels from the sort of constant internal migration of which I have been but one exemplar. Its economy swells, and yet, as it swells, it is undoubtedly also distorted in ways that surely must disconcert and occasionally anger the deeper-rooted local residents. 

There is an oddly visible and vocal group within the immigrant population here — I’m not even sure that the term sub-group is appropriate — consisting of fugitives, fraudsters, kiddyfiddlers, crazies, debauchees, deluded egotists, exploiters and spongers. 

On any given day perhaps the least sordid of them are busy posting pictures on Facebook of malnourished and mangy pooches in the hope that some compassionate soul will send them money to subsidise their sojourn in Central America. 

Nobody ever claimed that every single peripatetic person, anywhere around the globe, is a living breathing avatar of positive economic and social energy. 

It is possible to have a measured, adult conversation about these issues. 

But this is not the conversation that the likes of Nigel Farage or Donald Trump want us to have.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Schadenfreude

The Krouts will soon know exactly why they needed a word like this...


BoJo Jnr

One of the many painful ironies of all this is that Boris Johnson has at least one child that was born a Belgian citizen. 

I don't know how this panned out in the end, but back in the early 90s when he was the Spectator's corerspondent in Brussels, submitting regular pieces of anti-EU invective, his wife became pregnant. 

Meanwhile, the Conservatives under Major had passed a new immigration law designed to stem migration from the Indian subcontinent. 

The gyst of this w that people whose parents were not UK-born could not expect any offspring born outside the country to have automatic UK citizenship. 

The four grandparents of Boris's sprog, though UK citizens, were born outside the UK.

There was quite a lot of schadenfreude about this at the time.


Monday, June 27, 2016

The Pie Chart Conundrum

The industry where I used to work became replete with right brain-dominant people pretending to be left brain-dominant. 

One of the most obvious symptoms of this was the use of pie charts to illustrate states of affairs that should not logically be illustrated this way. 

The EU referendum last Thursday, and the shocking result we woke up to on Friday, is a classic example of this sort of basic analytical misconception. Call it the revenge of PowerPoint on political common sense. 

Let's start by pointing out that voting for whether to LEAVE or REMAIN in the EU is not the same sort of binary choice as that which will face Americans in November: Trump or Clinton. 

This is because both candidates will present well-defined and media-scrutinised plans to the US electorate, and a pie chart showing which proportion of the popular vote eventually goes to each candidate would make perfect sense, even though the result is finally decided by the electoral college. 

In the case of the recent referendum however, the British people were instead being asked to decide between THIS THING and NOT THIS THING, or between a well-defined set of rights and restrictions and something else which the Brexiters chose to leave as ill-defined as possible. 

Additionally, one of the options involved the possibility of voluntarily renouncing the EU citizenship that Article 28 of the Lisbon Treaty had given us, with the implication that if this was chosen by the majority, everyone else would have it forcibly taken away. 

Cameron speaks of the ‘will’ of the people, but ever since philosophers started debating freedom they have understood the basic distinction between freely choosing to do something and having to do it under duress. 

I now face the prospect of losing my EU citizenship rights AGAINST my will when, like most ex-pats, I had no say in the referendum. 

From a legal standpoint this is completely different to signing them away. (e.g. The fact that 52% choose to jump inside a lake of molten lava does not give the state the right to toss the remaining 48% in.) 

This significant legal and moral imbalance would occur the moment Article 50 is triggered and must surely be one reason the Brexiters are reluctant to do so in a hurry. 

In all of this Scotland is a bit of a distraction. Their government appears to be saying that their own local pie chart (65% Remain / 35% Leave) has moral force over the national one, but in fact the 48% that voted to stay in overall can deploy exactly the same moral argument, and have the greater numbers transcending existing geopolitical boundaries. 

It’s not the stupid answer that was given but the stupid question that was asked that we should be recriminating over. 

Make no mistake, this is largely David Cameron’s fault and his rather smug, hand-washing approach now is especially galling. 

He had some form on this, by asking a similarly dumb question of the Scots in 2014 and actually most Brits outside of Scotland, left or right-brained, seemed to at least vaguely intuit the pie chart conundrum back then. 

The two options were however much better defined for our northern neighbours, and citizens of the rump UK were apparently not going to lose anything quite so tangible other than the abstract concept of union and the sense of being diminished as a nation.

In the end the uncertainty over the currency swung it for Remain. In this campaign the Britain Stronger In camp lacked a comparable lever. They should therefore have made much clearer the notion of concrete loss. 



In simple terms...

We invented parliamentary democracy and never has the need been greater for us to show the world how it can and must operate. 

The urgency is compounded by the fact that populist movements which function as if their politicians were delegates not representatives are springing up everywhere and the technocratic un-charisma of the EU confuses people into thinking that British political values are somehow best served by Brexit.

And the immediate problem is that parliament not only needs to act, it needs to articulate why it is acting in a way that the divided nation can digest. A lack of obvious leadership is very much part of this crisis.


The 'Bad Friday' Agreement?

As I understand it, the Good Friday Agreement stipulated that there would be no border between the Republic and the Province and that even those who were deeply opposed to the concept of a united Ireland could apply to the government south of the border for a passport - as they are now doing so in droves.

What if a similar agreement was set up between EU-independent UK and a UK-independent Scotland? 

We could call it the Bad Friday agreement in honour of how many of us felt on the 24th. 


Against our will

If, instead of a referendum, the government had put up a suitably idiot-proof website inviting anyone who wished to give up their EU citizenship to use an online form to do so, how many of the dimwits who voted Leave on the 23rd would have taken them up on the offer?

The two answers on last week’s referendum voting slip - Leave and Remain - were surely qualitatively different from a legal perspective.

One involved the possibility of voluntarily surrendering one’s citizenship, the other involved the possibility of having it taken away AGAINST one’s will, in effect by force. (Something for which there are few precedents.) 

The 'will' of the people on each side of this debate was never going to be something you could express as two portions of a pie-chart. 

The Scots clearly get this, as do many ex-pats who were not even given the chance to participate in this farcical plebiscite. 

The Scottish government considers that the Remain majority north of the border gives their argument particular moral force, but in fact every member of the 48% minority has it as well, and they also have a strength in numbers beyond existing geopolitical boundaries. 


Angry minority

The other obvious difference between the 52% and the 48% is that many of the latter are now angrier (and getting steadily more so) about being dragged out of the EU than many of the 52% ever were about being part of it before the referendum was called. The political ramifications of this are significant. It does not take an angry majority of 50.1% to upset an entire political system.


Friends, Britons Countrymen...

BoJo is not quite the man of principle that Shakespeare made Marcus Junius Brutus out to be, but he was similarly drawn into an existing conspiracy to give it wider appeal and a modicum of intellectual respectability.

Brutus failed to capitalise on what he saw a necessary act of political carnage, and Boris may now be on a similar trajectory.

Perhaps what the UK now needs is its own Marcus Antonius to show up at the funeral of Britiain's economic future and remind everyone there that we did once consider it valuable, and that those who did it in should be driven out forthwith. 



Sunday, June 26, 2016

When inaction is the gutsy option...

Any national leader worth the name (and who has read his or her Machiavelli) will know that Parliament can and should find a way to ignore the result of this referendum, because most of the Brexiters are too old to come out on the street and protest.


Dead cat bounce...

Or perhaps all we've done is have a sneak peek inside the box, and will now shut the lid in the hope that the wave function will somehow un-collapse?


Schrödinger's Brexit

We had to open the box to find out that the cat was dead...



Sorry Nigel...

It now appears that Thursday's referendum wasn't about EU membership after all. More than 14m people scratched a mark on a piece of paper in a historical bit of direct democracy that was actually about...

1) An unofficial Tory party leadership contest

2) An unofficial independence referendum for provincial England (and the place next door with Gareth Bale and lots of sheep)

3) A protest against government cuts


4) Er...Muslims.

So we don't need to trigger Article 50 at all, because it's surely not relevant to any of the above.

(PS: I forgot to mention the NHS. Somehow it's ALWAYS about the bloody NHS.)



The Brexiters

One can look at the age profile of LEAVE voters optimistically, but mortality won't solve this problem any time soon. 

There's a demographic within our society that the system doesn't really need, and it should be basically self-sustaining for a while yet. 


And they are quite probably going to be harder to re-integrate than those marginalised children of immigrants who run off to join ISIS, and possibly also bigger threat to our political culture in the long run. 


How did we get here? 


When industrialisation first started delivering the good and the bad things we habitually associate it with, the ignorant were not such a headache. Peasants could be converted into factory workers; some even provided with a basic education and formed into the newspaper-reading sort. 


Pan out a bit and one could see that the system depended on slavery and colonial exploitation, but this was less visible to the workers beavering away within the nation state and they felt proud of their role in it. When the empire came to and end, they helped create a new kind of state which they could be even prouder of, because it promised to care for them. 


These days our increasingly globalised version of capitalism is coming to depend primarily  - in the developed world at least - on a base of what a friend of mine likes to call 'knowledge workers'. It no longer has the same economic incentive to care for the relatively uneducated. 


This is not a society in which the knowledge-challenged will ever be able to feel comfortable. Most of the jobs they used to do are being outsourced abroad or in-sourced to rapidly incoming foreigners...some of which are not even ignorant, just highly motivated. Capital and commodities now move freely and humanity wants to as well. 


Yesterday's vote just invalidated the deal Cameron did with his European peers on free movement within the EU. Renegotiating our relationship with the single market could take several years and in the meantime an immigration free-for-all is likely as the LEAVE campaign(s) made, albeit vague, commitments to preserve the status of the UK's EU residents before the drawbridge is finally pulled up. And a collapsed Pound makes our island additionally attractive to Johnny Foreigner in all his most bargain basement manifestations. Not quite what the (comparatively) ignorant were voting for. 


Many clearly hanker nostalgically after the moment around the middle of the last century when their collective sense of pride and involvement was at its apogee: when darker people knew their place, even if they had been granted indepedence and a new role in the Commonwealth. They'd surely love to turn the clock back. But our societies march on, albeit with them very much on board still as a dangerous, potential pathogen. 


England and Wales in particular, minus perhaps London which may eventually break away, look set to become a sort of offshore floating sanctuary for the white van clan. 

The Labour Party in Britain has been trying to compassion them into submission - If only we can show we still care, they won't smash the whole place up out of frustration. 

But take a look what's happening across the Atlantic where the compassion approach ran out of steam a generation or so ago. 

The Right's approach had been to take this manipulable mass at face value and co-opt them into a political culture which barefacedly involved selling turkeys on the idea that, to borrow from Monty Python, it's Christmas every day in heaven.  

But suddently Christmas wasn't so great and the sudden fissures in this cosy arrangement were exploited by populists - those who would make the heavenly Christmas great again, for turkeys. 

The ignorant have twigged that the Right considers them their perennial dupes, but still appear to find this preferable to the attitude of many of those courting them on the Left who can barely disguise the multiple ways that they find the modern proletariat depressingly repulsive. 

This is in part because, from the perspective of leftist intellectual nostalgia, this current demographic is no match for the generation that they seem to model themselves on. Those that built the NHS are disappearing fast and being steadily replaced by those that just moan and gripe about it. (Those that won the World Cup in '66...)

And for every person who has genuinely experienced hardship as a result of undefunded and over-demanded services there are surely several who just adopt the rhetoric that is presented to them in the media-sphere to mask their own xenophobia and all round annoyance with the direction the new world order is taking. 


Most seem to long for a time and a place that they never experienced directly, when those born into lower cultural conditions strove, often successfully, to transcend these native limitations and remake the world according to a positive set of open-minded and collective values. 


It might not have really ever existed outside of some sort of class memory, and at this moment in history seems beyond the capabilities of closed-minded low-brows to re-constitute. 




Saturday, June 25, 2016

Winsome / Losesome

Thanks to the tireless work of cross channel cameramen not only do we have a sense of which European nations have the most winsome female fans, we can also appreciate which ones have brought the greatest number of male fans unable to grasp the difference between the lens that is capturing them and the screen where their image appears...


A free pass in the blame game...

Let's face it, rarely do British politicians have such a clearcut opportuity for dodging responsibility for a recession as this Brexit now presents them with.
Boris even (sort of) apologised in advance for the coming downturn, but must have sensed too that a sizeable part of the blame could eventually be shifted onto white van man...and the heat thus taken off the bankers, hedge fund managers, property speculators and the rest of the usual suspects. 
Better still if the economic pain can be blamed on a further contraction in the Eurozone, as most Brexiters won't immediately twig that that would be their fault too. 

While there may be a practical argument for a government by leading independence-fantasists after Article 50 is invoked, the Tories could further benefit from this unique hand-washing opportunity by electing someone like Theresa May as their new leader...
The developing YOUR fault, not our fault positioning should be fun to follow...


Outcomes

Ignorance and stupidity are not simply the cause of bad political outcomes, they are part of them - this is a dynamic, self-reinforcing process.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Brexit

Could it happen? It’s a bit like asking if the Donald might be America’s next President. Logic, common sense, human decency etc. surely dictate that it it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, but at this particular moment in the history of western capitalism, it just might. 

The polls currently suggest a three point lead for the LEAVErs. It’s not clear how seriously these should be taken three weeks before the referendum. 

It is clear however that voting intentions are starkly split along generational lines. The young tend to want to remain and the ageing and aged, by and large, want out. 

There’s no sign as yet that the population as a whole is as engaged as Scotland was. Whichever campaign is better at tempering voter apathy will have a serious advantage. 

What will probably happen is that many will enjoy the thrill of change for change’s sake right up to the final days, when fear of it will abruptly kick back in and the status quo will seemingly survive, almost miraculously; by 52%-48% in all probability. 

The professional chatterers need a drama, preferably a very tense one, and so one can expect that the polls funded by major media players will point to a knife-edge conclusion right up to the 23rd. The financial markets will lurch this way and that as the journos gleefully pull their strings. 

From a speculative investor’s perspective there are probably more gains and losses to be made this month either side of the referendum than at any other stage of 2016. Consequently much of the relevant ‘news’ output at this time will be informed by reprehensibly cynical motives. 

My own generation could be said to sit roughly on the dividing line here (when not actually on the fence!). We can see how things are going and it is frankly very hard to keep one’s glass half full. What we once imagined the EU might become has been subverted by the technocratic, democracy-diminishing ‘new world order’ and when we talk of reforming it from within, we surely know that this is probably little short of a pious platitude. But the young at least have that (occasionally) adorable illusion that they have it in their power to make the world a better place. 

Listening to my old friends talking about London, about what it appears to have become and is becoming ever more so with each passing day,  I can sympathise with their frustration and sense of alienation from a city they once believed their own. The UK's capital has become the ultimate playground of the globalised world, and whether you are a Russian oligarch, a Bulgarian barista or a Middle Eastern refugee, you will feel the gravitational pull of the great people magnet. Longer term inmates feel that the migrants, rich and poor, come to chew the place up, spit it out and then move on somewhere else. 

I get to go back once or twice a year and each time feel more and more like a rather detached tourist, though there are still some startling interludes when I am thrilled and repelled in equal measure. 

I’m not sure how I’d feel about living there now. The recent passing of my mother has further amplified the sense of disconnection. Out in the country the enfeebled fantasy of ‘middle England’ is easier to hold up, and it is of course in these greener patches that UKIP finds many of its recruits. 

Only yesterday I was talking to my father about the state of Marks & Spencer as a business - for generations perhaps the most iconic retail presence on the British high street. Their clothing range, that for so long offered unique value to consumers based on low rents and quality local manufacturers, cannot now compete with businesses like Primark which are grounded in far flung sweatshops. 

Capitalism is engaged in a relentless process of globalisation and the middle orders of the G7 nation states are being severely squeezed. Elsewhere, relatively-excluded humanity sees commodities moving almost without friction across borders and wants to do the same. For billions of people, national frontiers look like a flimsy story told to gullible children. The internet, free markets, freedumb in general, have all disintermediated so many walled gardens within our societies, why not the very walls around them? 

Trump and Sanders are both tapping into our collective discombobulation at this state of affairs. I think the populist position that it is somehow reversible, is probably a lie, or at least a very shaky hypothesis. The Donald and several key members of the LEAVE campaign in Britain are using barely-condonable, xenophobic discourse to draw people into their proposition and (probably futile) policy response. 

Much has been made this week of Nigel Farage’s remarks that staying in the EU will increase the number of attacks on women. It’s as if he and others on his wavelength are suggesting that continental Europe is basically a lost cause and has already in effect been overrun by the fuzzy-wuzzies, so all we can now do is pull up the drawbridge. Before Farage had to insinuate that Bulgarians and Romanians were not quite like us, but the recent, alarming surge in migration from the further fringes has allowed him to be bolder in his rhetoric. Many will surely go in to vote thoroughly confused about the issues of inter-EU mobility and that of the ‘swarm’ from the likes of Syria and Iraq. 

The left shows scorn and dismay, but there are some painful truths being touched upon here that they don’t want to face. Take for example the recent mass abuse of women in Cologne by gangs of reportedly North African/middle-eastern migrants and the systematic abuse of young white teenage girls in Yorkshire by men of predominantly Pakistani origin. 

The Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek compares these events to the 'Great Cat Massacre’ in 18th century France, in which a substantial group of apprentices suddenly rose up and killed all the kitties belonging to their masters. It is said they did this as a form of carnivalesque rejection of dominant bourgeois values: they lived alongside, almost within affluent French society and yet felt excluded, somehow lesser than those treasured felines. 

So when the liberal-left suggests that the molesters of Cologne are simply ignorant of how seriously we take our values and need to be — gently — educated about women’s rights and so on, Žižek thinks they have misunderstood the situation completely. The abusers know very well what our values are and they have periodically clubbed together to show their contempt for them in a very deliberate and systematic way, such that the message could not be any clearer. Yet they are like the apprentices. Once the orgiastic carnival of frustration and repressed envy peters out, they may not have given up entirely on the hope of being masters tand living by the mainstream values themselves one day. 

Anyway, only yesterday I saw Stephen Hawking making the point that time travel backwards is much less likely than time travel in a future-bound direction. So, in spite of all this — and in spite of trying to stay true to my own pessimistic outlook  — I can see no circumstances in which an attempt to go backwards is going to work out better than confronting what the future holds and trying to deal with it using the largest collaborative groups at our disposal. 


Thursday, June 02, 2016

Trump's need to find out what is going on...

If religions are, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, subjectifications of human predicaments, then just about any could serve as a medium for the expression cruelty based on repressed envy, violent nihilism and all round self-righteous vengefulness. 

In this respect there is surely nothing special about Islam. Yet while it is certainly possible to make use of Christianity as the basis of a wholesale rejection of modernity (viz all the Mennonites in these parts), it would also be fair to say that in general this is one branch of monotheism that has made a series of accommodations with modernity over quite an extended period and that makes it a nichier option for this sort of lifestyle / all round bolshy attitude. Indeed, from the perspective of someone who thinks of their outlook as primarily non-western, Christianity can easily appear to be complicit with western mores and the global capitalist system as a whole. 


And while it is certainly possible to characterise Christianity as, in some senses still an ‘eastern’ religion and Islam as in some senses, right from the outset, a ‘western’ one, the opposite is the more straightforward mainstream approach to this. 


This is why someone living inside the west, yet experiencing this at least partially as an outsider, Islam is the more likely supernatural justification for the sort of love-hate relationship with modern emancipatory values that occasionally verges into violent rejection. 


But religion is really just the medium here. The underlying cause is the modern western system and the way it fails to be properly inclusive. 


So Trump’s plan, based on further explicit exclusion, would really represent a codification of the problem, and not anything resembling a solution. 




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.