Monday, August 14, 2017

Dummy's Guide

A handy guide to many-sided conflicts for the likes of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. 
When should one check oneself before suggesting that both sides in a ruckus are equally violent and generally looking for trouble? 
a) When one side is a bunch of Nazis
b) When one side is the state and has an army and has just flushed the constitution down the toilet.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Freeing ourselves from Freedumb...

There really is no 'free' thing that is an endless good in itself.

To some extent the West is constantly struggling these days to free itself from the strident American misconception of freedom, free markets etc. Put simply this is the notion that the application of freedom to anything improves it and any negative consequences are somehow being imagined by people with jaundiced mentalities.

In the English tradition we get our base conception of freedom from Thomas Hobbes. And as Quentin Skinner puts it: 'The desperate paradox on which Hobbes’s political theory is grounded is that the greatest enemy of human nature is human nature itself'.

Hobbes got it. Freedom is in our nature, he insisted - our birthright - but it comes with negative consequences as well as positive ones.

The trouble is that in making this point Hobbes famously emphasised a worst case scenario: the nasty, brutish and short lifestyle that results from everyone exercising their right to freedom at the same time.

In practice it is more of a slow-burn or layered kind of apocalypse that tends to occur. We get many good things from the Internet, open borders, free markets, the Uber economy and so on. In many cases the good far outweighs the bad, depending in part on one's historical perspective.

Whilst this is undeniable, so too is the fact that freedom amplifies good and evil at the same time. And some of those amplified evils manifest themselves as NEW evils and thus have a transformative effect that belies their minority status in the whole package.

Viz Douglas Murray today on the issues posed by 'free' migration into Southern Europe...





Tuesday, August 08, 2017

British Ancestry and Diversity

This over-heated debate about diversity in Roman Britain is skirting around one of the more interesting aspects of the nation's genetic heritage.

If Romans of African descent have left almost no trace in the British gene pool, Mary Beard is quite right to point out that neither have the Normans. (Or for that matter, any other kind of Romans.)

But more to the point, there is a notable (and for many, surprising) dearth of Anglo-Saxon ancestry in the English gene pool as well.

DNA studies tend to reveal that most 'native' Britons can trace their ancestors back in an unbroken line to the people that occupied the island long before the Romans even turned up, and that is this component of their DNA that tends to predominate. 

This should not be all that surprising. After the ice age Britain was effectively an empty space that was suddenly repopulated both by people coming up the Atlantic coast from the Iberian peninsula and people crossing the North Sea from what is now Germany and Scandinavia. (My own paternal ancestors belonged to the former group, according to an analysis I had done a decade ago.) 

Everyone who came later, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans etc etc. represented little more than a top-up. 

Though from the political perspective the locals experienced this more as a top-down phenomenon!


Monday, August 07, 2017

Corbyn condemns 'all violence' in Venezuela...


Oh snore. 

Back in the 80s when many different Latin American countries were enduring US-supported tyrannies, a public condemnation of 'all the violence' was shorthand for downplaying the oppressive conduct of the state, as well as an attempt to establish moral equivalence between the authorities and their armed forces and anyone brave enough to stand-up to them with anything other than a placard. 

In other words, casuistry Jeremy, pure and simple. 


Ex-pat or Migrant?

That old controversy about the difference between an ex-pat and an immigrant resurfaced on the newly re-branded Ex-Pats Living in Guatemala page yesterday (now redacted).

The literature on this one is quite extensive and politically gnarly. In the UK we have non-doms as well, just to add to all the fun.

But in Guatemala, although these categories are necessarily fluid, I think it is clear that in the main an ex-pat is someone who is...

A) Wanted by the FBI, or..
B) On a 90-day tourist visa either working illegally or running a small business 'bajo agua', as they say here. 

On a somewhat separate note, I recently crossed the border between Corozal and Chetumal and the process at Mexican customs was so utterly interminable that one Belizean wag was heard to quip 'We're not here to ask for asylum you know man!' 


A typical Q&A session...

...on the Facebook page formerly known as 'Guatemala Ex-pats'..
Q: Has anyone used Uber to get to the airport?
A1: Well, I once got an Uber in Kuala Lumpur and it was fine...
A2: No, but that sure is an interesting question.

A3: What's an Uber?




Decoherence

There's a choice of scrambled eggs or strawberry cheesecake for breakfast. I deliberate.

According to seventeenth century English thinker Thomas Hobbes, that's exactly what I am doing: de-liberating.

For in Hobbes's view we are only truly free at the moment of choice, not in the making of it. 

As Keanu Reeves said in a recent BBC interview, 'It's quantum baby'.

This take on freedom mingles well with my own notion that one should try to juggle one's worldviews. In other words, as far as possible, one's political cats should remain both dead and alive, for that is the only way that they are also going to be free.

So, while one might think that taking up a firm and radical position out on the ideological fringe makes one look handily both conspicuous and coherent  to follow the analogy  instead the tendency is to de-cohere.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

Waterguate?


Conjoined


This operation is freely available on the streets of Guatemala...

15 minutes from Antigua...



By hang glider?

One has to wonder just how above board it can be to flog off parcels of land three quarters of the way up the volcano for almost $200,000. 

These are 40 little eco-cabins we'd rather not be looking up at. 

Let's hope that 'off the grid' doesn't actually mean lack of proper planning oversight. 

Greetings, my German friends...

When I first came to Guatemala in the late 80s there was a local man of my acquaintance who was wont to greet any German national he encountered with a well-practiced yet amiable Nazi salute, often adding an ardent 'Heil Hitler' for good measure. Whilst he reported being a little disappointed with some of the responses he received ('maleducados'), there were still quite a few Teutons around town back then who might be said to have had more than a passing familiarity with this gesture...and must have had to consciously restrain themselves from responding in kind!



Thursday, August 03, 2017

The Wrong Battlefield?



Back in November I was given some brief exposure to the gameplay of Battlefield 1 by a friend in London. 

Now it would be fair to say that I've been finding computer games less and less engaging as I grow older, but there was a lot more to this experience than incurious indifference. 

Back in the day I dabbled with other murderous first person scenarios which were surely conceived in at least as much poor taste (Carmageddon, Wolfenstein etc.), but given a couple of days reflection I realised that I have never felt as profoundly offended by any game as I was by this one. 

This might be a very subjective response by a lapsed historian like myself, but I suspect there are some more objective cultural triggers behind this which are worth exploring. 

The Second World War has become our primary meta-narrative of warring worldviews, the ultimate triumph of good vs evil, life over the cult of death etc.  As such, it kind of lends itself to gameplay. 

The Great War on the other hand has a very different place in our collective imagination. As we roll through the various centenaries we Brits have commemorated the conflict with a bloody moat of poppies around the Tower of London and, just recently, a melting soldier of mud in Trafalgar Square.

It has become the modern western world’s Memento Mori, a politically acceptable cult of death. Which is why I think re-spawning avatars a la Doom seem somehow especially inappropriate. 

The western front is not just any battlefield, it’s where something in our civilisation died and as with any death of personal significance, it marks a painfully irretrievable loss. 

A similar if more subdued form of vexation took hold of me during the recent and otherwise enjoyable Wonder Woman movie. 

I gather the comics were set originally in WWII, but the decision was taken to place the emergence of Diana's somewhat aggressive brand of pacifism during the earlier conflagration. Along the way the First World War was given a bit of a makeover such that it took on many of the characteristics of the next one. 

This piece of chicanery was only just legitimised by the proposition of the movie's basic mythology that the warlike Amazons are somehow against all war, and it is certainly true that the no-nonsense pacifist position encounters less resistance from WWI than it does from WWII. 

Anyway, unlike many people in modern discourse, I do understand the important difference between being offended myself and believing that everyone should be offended. 


Press 1 for English?



Dear new, possibly soon-to-be-old, fuckface at the White House podium, 

Before accusing the cosmopolitan-biased Mr Acosta of Fake News Inc. of ignorance, consider the following not-so-stupid questions. 

What proportion of the names of US states derive from the English language?

What proportion of the territory of the United States was until fairly recently part of Mexico? And in the broader sense, what portion of the continent of North America has in general strong historical ties to a non-anglophone cultural tradition? 

As Felipe Fernández-Armesto said in Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States

‘Citizens of the United States have always learned the history of their country as if it unfolded exclusively from east to west. In consequence, most of them think their past has created a community essentially—even necessarily—anglophone, with a culture heavily indebted to the heritage of radical Protestantism and English laws and values...even well-educated, amiable, open-minded people in the United States do not realize that their country has a Hispanic past, as well as a Hispanic future—or, at least, that if people do realize this fact, they commonly assign it no contemporary relevance or cultural significance.’ 

An immigration policy which makes speaking English a requirement for work permits isn’t racist per se so much as genuinely fascist, in as much as the last century’s biggest fan of linguistic discrimination was one Francisco Franco. 

Just imagine that the UK refused a work permit to a Patagonian Welsh-speaker that wanted to come and work in Cardiff but only spoke Welsh fluently. Just how ignorant would that be? 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Schadenfreude alert!



Considered a violation of their laws...   (link)

Those weird and wonderful Guatemalan laws that if you're not careful will see you dragged up some temple steps only to have your heart cut out with an obsidian blade. 

Hang on a sec; we're not exactly talking necking a bottle of Havana Club in public on the streets of Riyadh, stepping on the King's portrait in Bangkok, chewing gum in Singapore or bringing your dog with you into Australia, are we?

If it had been Pepito travelling in the other direction, I think attempting to board a plane with a backpack full of bullets might well have been considered a violation of US Federal law, and that the TSA might also have been disinclined to regard this as an innocent mistake in the first instance...don't you think? 

I was once severely hassled over some instant coffee which they insisted had nitroglycerine amongst its ingredients, only to later admit that it's an ingredient in many common consumer products, such as hand cream. 

But they do so like making you squirm anyway. My (very) Norwegian friend by the name of Solheim was even held up because his surname sounded suspiciously like Suleiman.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Tribal Traditions

Often when the subject of the slave trade comes up, along with the need for modern white Europeans to feel palpably guilty about it in some way, someone pipes up with a statement along the lines of ‘Africans enslaved Africans too.’ 

This is one of those true statements that reveals some rather interesting things about the nature of truth itself...and its uses. 

Usually the person giving voice to it is not what you would call an all-round expert on African history and culture. They will instead have tended to pick up this fact in isolation, largely as a means to the end of interrupting a debate in an apparently confounding manner, most commonly also as a means to getting modern white Europeans off the hook a bit. 

It is indeed true that Africans enslaved Africans, just as it is true that Pedro de Alvarado conquered Guatemala with an army of Native Americans. Invaders of all sorts have always encouraged pre-existing antagonistic conditions in the lands into which they intrude. And so it was in Africa, where Europeans stirred independent tribal societies into damaging conflicts in which prisoners were taken, who could later be sold to the Europeans as slaves. 

In modern Cuba three separate African religious traditions have been largely preserved, the most widespread being Santeria which derives from the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. 

These belief systems survived in part because the Spanish slave-owners on the island wanted them to. In fact they established a set of slave-run councils or cabildos to help preserve the tribal identities of their human property, as they anticipated that tensions between such entities would offset against any outburst of protest against the slave-owning order in general. 

Yet many Cubans of African descent became proud of these bodies and the role they played in preserving African language and traditions. Similarly Mayan people in Guatemala today wear colourful textiles often specific to their places of birth of which they are justly proud, tending to to forget that these were also rolled out originally as part of a system of colonial control. 

Tribalism is thus almost always a double-edged sword. 

Members of a particular tribe who are in its grip often imagine that their feelings in this matter are somehow protecting them from a whole set of outside threats, whilst preserving stuff that deserves to be preserved. 

Fans of America First or Brexit are no different in this respect. But do please bear in mind that wherever there is tribalist sentiment, there’s usually also someone out there exploiting it for a wholly different set of ends. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Airport Congestion

There have been mixed reports of the impact of the new security procedures for US-bound flights at Aurora. One punter claimed yesterday that there were long lines at 3:50am. 

The last time I took an early morning flight out of Aurora was November last year (Interjet to CDMX) and the pre-Trump security backlog was already pretty hellish. 

This is an example of how the knock-on effects of US policy can damage the economies of other nations. The United and AA outbound services are concentrated in the 6am-8am window, which actually represents an inconvenience for tourists, especially those located in La Antigua. 

But at the same time there are multiple regional flights favoured by business passengers  to Panana City, San José, CDMX etc.  and it is these people, trying to make it to another city for a morning meeting or to do a proper day's work, who are now being severely inconvenienced by the US-sponsored chaos at the airport shortly after sunrise. 

I have no idea how much control the Guatemalan authorities actually have over runway slots, but the should seriously looking at shunting the Yanquis into a time window where they only disrupt themselves. 



Chirajos

At the eastern end of the Tanque de la Union there's a sizeable pila - a public wash basin - where local women have come for generations to clean their trapitos
Imagine that upon completion of this task, they then run up lines between the palms and lamposts in the park in front, so that their garments can dry in the sun. 
From an aesthetic perspective, that is essentially what is going on here and I imagine that the occupants of the house behind the group in this picture are none too pleased about it. 

But the key difference with these yoga classes is that their leader is taking commercial advantage of a public space. A better analogy might be the opening of a paca on this same lawn, with the only real difference being that the chirajos have human beings inside them. 

La Antigua's parks and public spaces are limited in size and quantity and are increasingly being adopted as places of unregulated commercial activity by all sorts. 

How many of the people in this pic will have paid for their Boleto de Ornato? There are genuine upkeep issues behind this, as well as fair use of public space.

In El Panorama there is a similar issue with the ball court which is frequently hogged (at no cost) by local private colegios and semi-professional futsal teams amongst others, whilst all the maintenance overheads are borne in effect by the community.

If Susancio is going to be fair and consistent, she needs to move this lot on just as she has moved on the sellers of típicos and books. 'A gashrotashos' if needs be.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

El Shute has his dos centavos' worth...

If there's one thing Susana deserves some support on it is this displacement of the 'Feria del Libro'. As an avid and diversified reader in both Spanish and English - with noted bibliomaniac tendencies some might allege  - I can honestly say I have almost never felt the urge to graze this particular set of troughs. (Though I did pick up Gloria Álvarez's polemic on populism after listening to her plugging it live at the feria last year.) 

Most of the tomes on offer are utter junk, the sort of stuff you could buy any day of the week at the Mariposa. Claims that this annual event adds to the intellectual life of the city are spurious. 

But the real issue here is that the Muni has to be consistent - one of the main complaints levied by avuncular Dr Parada on Thursday about the pedestrianisation of the Calle del Arco. 

If they wish to de-commercialise the Parque Central, then they have to re-locate the book-sellers along with the pestering típico peddlers, no matter how much faux-intellectual bravado they display.  

Our mayor has to be prepared to piss EVERYONE off uniformly- the stuffy conservative petty-elite, the parasitical gringos, the invasive riff-raff from the provinces...everyone. 

And she has to stop trying to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Massive fines directed at all those who flout her directives will get her nowhere. Far more than an architect or urban planner, right now La Antigua needs an economist in its top job. 

This is because by its very nature Antigua benefitted a long time ago from up front contributions from architects and urban planners, and what it needs in the contemporary environment is an administration that understands the complex and sophisticated web of incentives and disincentives that needs to be spun to get the place functioning properly again.





Friday, July 21, 2017

The price is whatever you are prepared to pay...

One thing you notice here is a much more obvious disconnect between price and quality than you see in the developed world. 

This is I think one of the more obvious costs of relative ignorance - ignorant retailers selling to largely ignorant consumers. 

You see this at the Bodegona on the shelves where products like wine and pasta are stocked. The pasta aisle for example features cheap pasta on one side and expensive pasta on the other, with no noticeable difference in quality. It’s all about what people are prepared to pay. The situation with wine in there is even worse. 

Things are yet more extreme at the various delicatessens around town where supposedly fancy cheeses (mostly pre-ruined due to poor storage and sometimes even freezing) are sold by people who have never consumed such a thing in their lives. It’s like a bookshop staffed by illiterates. 


Saturday, July 15, 2017

From Referendum to Reformation...

I remain a committed remainer. 

There are all sorts of reasons for this, but at base it is because my thinking is beholden to a legacy of belief in the soi-disant ‘European Project’ which I am loath to let go of, and because of a steadfast commitment to my own adult identity as a Citizen of the EU. 

This places me in a position analogous to the sort of Roman Catholic who can park all the nonsensical medieval theology and modern abuse scandals at the back of his or her mind, reassured ultimately by the universalist proposition and the periodically illusive underlying decency that serve as bond to their faith and associated worldview. 

Is the EU capable of adapting to changing circumstances in much the same way that the Vatican transparently isn’t? It’s the trickiest of questions. The Catholic Church has a sense of being above mere circumstances. Sometimes it appears that the EU does as well. 

England at least has had some significant previous with this Brexit business. No doubt the subjects of Henry VIII were repeatedly warned that in their rejection of Rome they had made a monumental error of historical proportions. Then as now what Little Englanders rather obviously wanted was all the benefits without any of the external interference and control. 

And to some extent they got what they wanted, though the breach remained very much a live issue for at least three hundred years afterwards (soft, hard and then arguably softer again in the modern parlance — along of course with the abortive 'Lib Dem' approach undertaken by Henry's daughter Mary), and in one small part of our United Kingdom, a part they may prove particularly pertinent in relation to this new schism, it remains so to this day. 

In my desire to see the result of the referendum reversed I am as willing as the next remoaner to deploy project fear. But the truth is that not even a decision as apparently momentous as the one made last June can significantly undermine the position and trajectory of a modern nation like the UK. 

The EU ought to have given greater consideration to internal reform prior to the Brexit vote and it surely needs to do now as the world’s fifth largest economy - one with whom it maintains a handy €120bn trade surplus - detaches from it. And whatever now happens to the UK in ‘independent’ form, only the delusional can maintain that the 27 will not now witness a ramping up of the agonising pressures already being brought to bear on their four ‘indivisible’ freedoms, especially the freedom of movement. 

Instead of speaking and behaving like the Vatican, the EU might do well to consider in a timely fashion which of its fundamental precepts will best stand up to present and future realities. 


Friday, July 14, 2017

Time to act...

Both Brazil and Guatemala have over the past couple of years shown the rest of this hemisphere how to handle heads of state who both demean and mis-demean at the same time. 

Surely, the great nation that is the USA can muster just enough self respect now to know that its time to deal properly with a usurper like the Trump incubus? 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Top Notch Chop Houses

I've had the extremely good fortune to sit down to eat at many extraordinary eateries across Latin America on my travels over the past decade or so.  

Most of these fall into one of two main categories: small typical comedores of the unpretentious sort, and larger dining halls of considerable local repute cooking up notably superior versions of famed regional dishes. 

Those listed here belong to a third: mid-priced restaurants where either the quality or the creativity  in combination with the atmosphere  have made the meals served one of the standout memories of any visit to the (mostly) urban spaces they grace. 


Quintonil, Polanco, Mexico City, Mexico

Casa Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico

Catedral, Oaxaca, Mexico

El Mural de los Poblanos, Puebla, Mexico

Bangcook, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

La Palapa de Tio Fito, Campeche, Mexico

Mezzanine, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Pata Negra, Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Waoo, Vedado, La Habana, Cuba

La Cocina de Pepina, Getsemaní, Cartagena, Colombia

Donostia, Bogotá, Colombia

El Cielo, Leticia, Cololmbia

Al Frio y Al Fuego, Iquitos, Perú

Restaurante César (Formerly Mi Causa), Miraflores, Lima, Perú

Cevicheria El Cebillano, Arequipa, Perú

Mestizo, Vitacura, Santiago de Chile

Aqui Está Coco, Providencia, Santiago de Chile

Bar Liguria, Providencia, Santiago de Chile 

Café La Poesía, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Asador La Estancia, Buenos Aires, Argentina

The list is undeniably personal, clearly non-definitive, and arguably a bit idiosyncratic, and it might have been longer, but sadly a handful of establishments that would almost certainly have featured have since closed their doors (e.g. Nina Yaku in Arequipa, La Carmela in Mendoza, Cha Cha Cha in Cahuita) and others, such as our very own Welten here in La Antigua, are sadly not quite what they used to be. 




Monday, July 10, 2017

The Keepers

So, we made it to to the odd-numbered conclusion of The Keepers. I'd have prefixed this post with 'spoiler alert' except that the warning would have been about as meaningful in front of a recap of an episode of the new Twin Peaks

Certainly, if you have been left wondering who the alleged nun-killer 'Brother Bob' might have been, David Lynch is probably your go-to guy. 

The whole thing was indeed plotted in a rather Lynchian fashion, with a superficial sense of linearity laid over a more elliptical narrative, with frustrating non sequiturs at every turn. At one point in episode six V quipped that 'by the time they get back to the maggots I'll probably be covered in them myself!'

This was essentially a tale about people keeping things to themselves for too long or simply not saying as much as they actually know, and director Ryan White appears to have tried to adopt this as the pattern of his own exposition. 

The two main areas of interest, the slaughter of Sister Cathy and the sorry history of systematic abuse by Father Maskell were in the end somewhat flimsily coupled, via a single eye witness account of a guided visit to the cadaver. I was disappointed that no connection between the clergy/law enforcement and uncles Edgar and Bill was ever fleshed out. 

I was also rather disappointed that nobody explicitly voiced the irony implicit in the Archdiocese's response to Maskell's outing as a pederast: send him to a girls' school; that should do the trick! 

When the Forensic investigator Doctor Werner Spitz turned up and started rolling out names like JFK and OJ Simpson, the term 'Rosicrucians' popped into my head spontaneously...and for one ghastly moment it occurred to me that the whole series might be an elaborate spoof. 

The cops were all reassuringly archetypal. This lot in Baltimore couldn't release the autopsy report as this might prejudice any future cold case investigation, yet meanwhile had lost all the rest of the physical evidence. If anyone was supposed to be the eponymous keepers, it certainly wasn't them. 

We were particularly gobsmacked by Sharon May, the prosecutor tasked with taking on cases of sexual abuse in the area, who rather obvious lacks any interest whatsoever in her chosen field. The painful logic of her inertia was quite simple: we need corroboration but don't get too excited if you get it, because then we'll tell you every case has to stand up on its own anyway. 

This series will no doubt have played well with people, such as myself, who regard religion as a crime against humanity. However, nobody should be holding their breath that the Roman Catholic Church will become any less self-serving, secretive and manipulative as a result of exposés such as this. 

Normal

Just in case you weren't quite sure what Jimmy was referring to when he spoke to Jorge Ramos about 'normal' behaviour, not just in his own household, but all over this nation, here's an example of it in action on our streets...

- First the Muni van rocks up
- Then, using pickaxes, new holes are opened up where no such holes existed previously
- Big stones thus loosened are bagged up and loaded onto the pickup
- Holes are then filled with what looks like a mix of earth and volcanic rubble
- For good measure gasoline is then syphoned out of the pickup, no doubt so the bill for refueling can then be presented as a legitimate expense
- And repeat...


+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


En caso de que no estuvieras muy seguro de lo que Jimmy se estaba refiriendo cuando habló con Jorge Ramos sobre el comportamiento "normal", no sólo en su propia casa, sino en toda la nación, aquí está un ejemplo de ello en acción en nuestras calles...


- Primero, el picop de la Muni de la Antigua llega con varios trabajadores

- Luego ellos, utilizando piochas, abren nuevos agujeros donde no existían
- Las grandes piedras son así aflojadas y posteriormente embolsadas y cargadas al picop
- Los agujeros los rellenan de lo que parece una mezcla de tierra y escombros volcánicos
- Para finalizar, el colmo es que hasta extraen bocalmente (con una manguera) un galón de gasolina del vehículo, sin duda para poder pasar la factura con el gasto de rellenar el tanque. 

- Y así se repite el proceso...








PR Disasters Galore

Susancio is not only useless, she is also in a sense perpetually unlucky - as well as being very badly supported by her media team, if she even has one. This week the Muni started off with two rather good plans, on paper at least: firstly, close the noisy cafe-brothel opposite Soleil and secondly, move the clutter that is the annual biblio-junk festival out of the Parque Central and over to the forecourt of the Cooperación Española. In both cases however, the implementation process rather predictably resulted in the kind of PR disaster in which our Mayor seems to specialise.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

First Citizens

It’s a handy trick to see how modern would-be autocrats measure up against arguably the greatest of them all - Rome’s first emperor (or should we say first citizen), Augustus. 

The latter was a great autocrat because nobody then and perhaps even now is quite sure how he did it, as his highly innovative tyranny, which brought lasting change to the way the Romans were ruled, was successfully cloaked in a cloud of apparent continuity with and respect for the traditions of republican government.

Trump and Erdoğan for example, do little to disguise the innovation they claim to bring to the table, both suggesting that the existing system is flawed in significant ways and needs a strongman in charge to overcome some of these inherent weaknesses. 

In Trump’s case this message is malformed and likely to be little more than a glitch in the system, because constitutional government in the USA should ultimately prove stronger than a President lacking the intelligence to effect genuine undercover change.

Putin is a very different beast as he comes from a political tradition that is autocratic to the core. Where he does perhaps bear comparison with Augustus is in his ability to sound like the most reasonable man on earth even as his actions are demonstrably un-reasonable.

PS: Augustus was afraid of thunder storms. 





Tuesday, June 27, 2017

BBC Bias


Funny old thing this BBC bias. The corporation is supposed to be ‘balanced’ but the sort of people it hires into editorial roles, even journalistic ones, are inveterate packers and purveyors of ‘narrative’. 

My first proper encounter with this phenomenon occurred when my college at Cambridge provided facilities for a BBC panel debate hosted by Janet Street Porter. The Q&A session was especially lively, with many of my friends asking pertinent questions. 

However, when we all subsequently piled into the JCR to watch the televised version, it seemed that the contributions of us natives had been utterly expunged and that pretty much the only questions retained in the edit were those asked by individuals that the Beeb had brought in from other colleges: controversial characters with pre-scripted enquiries designed to stir things up rather than complement the panel’s insights. 

Then, a couple of years later, I was in Spain watching BBC coverage of the aftermath of George HW Bush’s invasion of Panama. A reporter asked an ageing man standing disconsolately amidst a large pile of rubble who he thought might now help him rebuild his home. The man’s reply in Spanish was succinct. The reporter turned to camera and translated it thus: ‘I think the USA will now assist Panama in its reconstruction.’ What the man had actually said was more along the lines of ‘The same fucking gringo who blew it up!’

Anyway, can it be at all surprising the a charter to balance out extremes can result in what appears like a perpetual bias towards the centre? And one can easily see how, in our contemporary political scene, just being less rural, less provincial, more educated or more ‘young’ can look like the basis for prejudice. 



Tipping the balance...?

Always a little jarring when an article in a serious magazine has an infographic attached, which in some ways contradicts the views expressed by the text. 

This week the Economist bemoaned Trump's new Cuba policy, suggesting that it would damage ordinary Cubans more than anyone else, repeating the old chestnut about Americans tipping better than anyone else. 

But, lookee here. Non-Cuban US visitors have provided only a small part of the big jump in overall visitor numbers since 2011. One would have to be inclined to factor into this sudden surge individuals from other nations hurrying to the island to see it before the group marked in red have totally spoiled it.  






Going forward, Trump's new policy shouldn't deter Americans of Cuban heritage. And if each successive administration fiddles with the guidelines  appropriately, one could even surmise that a perpetual 'The Americans are coming, no they're not, yes they are..' sequence might keep the bubble inflating nicely. 

The anonymous author of the piece appears to suggest that most of the users of Airbnb, which has collected $40m in revenue on the island since 2015, are US nationals. Yet even if this were the case, it's not entirely clear to me that this company could not further benefit from the new prohibition on patronising state/military-owned hotels. Can't tour companies block book using such a service? 

And anyone who thinks the Yanks are the world's best tippers should take a look at some of our ex-pat forums here in Guatemala. (I won't easily forget the advice given by one regular American user of tuctucs in La Antigua - that one should just throw ten quetzales down on the ground and run.) 

When I first went to Cuba in 2011 for a wedding at an all inclusive resort, I was intrigued how the Canadians all seemed to have a mysterious supply of small change to tip the staff even where no cash transaction was involved. Are they really that much meaner than their southern neighbours?  Along with the 'Europeans' - of possibly more questionable generosity - their numbers have increased in roughly equal proportion to the Americans since the boom began. 

If I were an 'ordinary Cuban' I'd not be so worried, though there's a case to be made that the Canadians are somewhat seasonal and that grouchy old French lefties are a dying breed.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Loss of Habitat

There's a road close to our home which is rather like one of those Pacific beaches to which turtles return year after year. 

Generation after generation of Panza Verdes have come this way to learn how to drive, to smoke dope, to park and shag. 

It seems not to matter much to the current bunch that the area is now more built up, that there are security cameras everywhere and that at times there is even a build-up of what you might call 'traffic'. 

The beach is no longer pristine, yet still they come...


Friday, June 23, 2017

On the leash at all times...

That nice man who’s currently in the White House you know, the one who can say stuff that nobody else would, or perhaps should has, ignoring the fact that his administration continues to maintain a detention camp on Cuban soil in flagrant violation of international law as well as every principle the West is supposed to stand for, served up this week some pointed invective about the other despotic, nepotistic regime currently operating there.

And now Americans have a strict new set of guidelines for travel abroad  specifically in relation to the island just off the Floridian coast  yet there’s surely an argument to be made that they might be extended to other parts of the region, and in the particular case of registered Republican voters, perhaps even the whole world?


First off, they have to pick from a limited set of categories that explain their reasons for leaving the greatest nation on Earth, with ‘people to people’ encounters now very much off the table.


Then, they are prohibited from checking into the hotels where everyone else stays and have to be properly chaperoned, allowed out only in large raucous groups waving little flags, just like they do during the opening ceremony of every Olympic Games (so that other nationals can see them coming and act accordingly).


Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they are not really allowed to enjoy themselves. Indeed according to the Treasury Department — which licenses Cuba travel, under the new rules — a "traveler's schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess."


This would certainly alleviate a good many Yank-related problems we have down here in Central America. I look forward to the Donald realising that he and his sort ought to be kept on the leash at all times. 



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Terror in Finsbury Park

In a recent radio discussion on Paradise Lost, John Carey opined that Milton's Satan was the first terrorist — as his was the first deliberate assault on innocence. It's as good a starting point as any, however one of the many difficulties with understanding terror attacks today is that while Satan was rather obviously aware that his victims were pure, many modern terrorists are clearly convinced of the opposite. 

In a more general sense our prevalent reasonings on motivation don't really seem to be getting us anywhere. Yesterday the UK government and the media collaborated in using the standard language and format of the nation's terror response — Cobra meetings et al. — in a manner that inevitably came off as simulated. 

Meanwhile,  those who suspect or openly grumble that there's a form of political correctness behind this, tend to end up making the familiar bigot's slip of assuming that while a white man's murderous rage always has a simple and largely individual diagnosis of the clinical sort, darker-skinned mass murderers are inevitably part of some sort of disturbing collective which represents an existential threat to everyone else's way of life. 

And then there is the fact that multiple explanations surely have to be taken into account.  Those of the person who carries out the 'atrocity' along with those of any direct or indirect sponsors. 

In many, but not all cases of the sort of incident we can all tend to agree to tally as 'terrorism', both the individual and the organised ideology in the background can usually be pinpointed. Which is why some hesitate to put acts of race hate in the category, because the ideas doing the influencing are more diffuse and the individual may not be acting explicitly as a foot soldier within an incontestably corporeal army. 

But Islamic State recently assumed responsibility for an attack that they may not in truth have had a direct influence over (Westminster Bridge), something which should indicate that the break-down in all these distinctions we might choose to make is actually suiting them rather nicely. 

They cannot but be pleased as well with the events in London last Sunday as one distinction always remains true: organised terror by states or organisations is less discriminate in its victims than the more focussed hatred of specific others by individuals. Hence, ISIS is essentially content to see other Muslims perish along with unbelievers because their lives are a means to an end. It is always thus with ideologies. 

Nevertheless, the UK government is right to give race hate attacks the security services treatment because they have as much if not more potential for disrupting our society, as the collective Blitz spirit response we have developed for 'international' terror is inevitably more muted in such cases, and thus the damage done to social relations can be more profound in the long run. 

But we still need to be a bit more exact in our analysis of motivations and causes. Top down explanations - Terror - still have to be complemented by bottom up accounts. 

Both the attacker on Westminster Bridge and the attacker in Finsbury Park can just as easily be compared with all those lone shooters in the USA as they can be with the foreign-trained members of terror cells. 

They are essentially variations on the amok phenomenon whereby disaffected and disorientated males suddenly vent their inner demons on society at large or a specific subsection of society...like a Sorority House. 

It is very important that we appreciate the important similarities across all the massacres that are being perpetrated in the West and elsewhere — and to that end we have to occasionally and very consciously remove those 'clash of civilisations' goggles. 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Toast

This time last week Theresa May was looking like burned toast. 

Now? Well, it's somehow a lot worse. Like she tried to scrape off a bit of her carbonised layer but then contrived to fall butter side down on a filthy floor. 

Perhaps we should just let HM the Queen and Prince Harry run the show for a bit, backed up by a suitably savvy backroom team of technocrats. I know...the T word...but it might be nice to see the country governed by a crew who provide at least a semblance of knowing what they're doing. 

The media and our elected representatives seem to be taking turns at being the dog and the tail. 

The Tories must be ruefully admitting to themselves now that, much to their cost, they ended up buying into a version of the most un-nuanced form of post-Brexit situational analysis. 

The referendum result appeared to have served them up with a new paradigm, or at least an old one we hadn't seen for quite a while - the classic mobs and snobs alliance - and that this would allow them to enter into a discussion with the 'native' working and middle classes in such a way that HM's opposition needn't actually be in the room. 

They forgot that Brexit was really just an epiphenomenon, a mechanism whereby the electorate felt able to act on concerns and grudges that were not normally part of the discourse. 

And along the way the Tories alienated a key part of their 'base' - small and big business interests that are justly terrified of throwing the baby out with the bath water if the UK leaves the EU Customs Union. 

Take just one of the semi-camouflaged issues underling the Brexit discourse: mass immigration. New arrivals from comparatively less affluent countries are said to have taken out something like £114bn more than they put in between 1995 and 2011, which has created pressure on housing, schools, healthcare etc. 

Beyond trying to spin this story out of existence, the two main political parties have each put forward a solution, neither of which will work on its own. The Tories want an 'Australian-style' approach to immigration control. Labour wants to increase spending on public services to meet the growing demand. Classic supply-side and demand-side fixes, both with a closing the door after the horse has bolted feel to them. 

I can't be the only one to have spotted that the logical approach here is a middle way, or a 'technocratic' one, except that is now a rude word. 

Meanwhile, centrist politics appear discredited, in part because they have tended to look like an amalgamation of the worst aspects of the two extremes, or just plain insipid. 

Voters are not dumb, they have only appeared so because they briefly flirted with filling this 'hole in the middle' with package of populist absurdities. This alternative has thankfully now been thoroughly disesteemed on a near global level by the on-going example of the Donald in the White House. 

Which is why I think the present situation, however fragile and potentially dysfunctional could be as much opportunity as threat: Order out of chaos as I heard one optimistic punter suggest on Newsnight tonight. 

As I have already suggested, the political class might now be forced to tackle certain issues more consensually and thus cut through all the partisan rhetoric. 


One can at least hope...