Monday, October 16, 2017

American Made

There's definitely a distinctive new genre in Hollywood, 'based on a true story'-type capers featuring loveable all-American rogues who are really not all that loveable, but as played by one of those adorable A-list men, we are given to understand that it is kind of hard to hate on them completely...

First we had Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, then in short order, Di Caprio as Jordan Belfort and Matthew McConaughey as Kenny Wells. Now we have Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in American Made. 

These men have their black souls cloaked in black comedy, which distracts us from the glaring absence of a moral compass, both personal and systemic.

In this film all the action is shot in a sort of nostalgic vintage instagram filter, suggesting period authenticity, but also disguising Cruise's puffy and wrinkled features (and thus the 25 or so year age gap with his leading lady.)

Anyway, here's one of the gags that may or may not be meta. Seal voices over a map-based explanation of his double-dealing of the cartels and contras and then admits he's mis-identified Nicaragua. 'No, wait a minute...that's El Salvador'. Except it isn't.

Movie Melancholy

We've watched a pair of flicks lately that immersed us in the movie melancholy of might-have-beens. 

First up, Blood Money, a modern B-movie retelling of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre set amidst the forests and 'gnarly' rapids of the State of Georgia. 

This one has an unusual, fairly nasty gender edge to it, that is under-explored, despite some last minute ramping up. 

And only John Cusack seems to sense the potential for dark humour here. The other male characters are weak. Perhaps that's part of the point, but I sense that the makers ducked out of delivering something with real bite. 

Then there's Atomic Blonde, one of those bad movies that contains enough fragments of goodness to set you wondering what a more competent director/screenwriter could have made of such material, not to mention the performance of Charlize Theron. (The presence of James McAvoy however is becoming a token of projects that have gone somewhat awry.) 

The failure to take full advantage of Berlin, a location that is just made for this sort of thing, was especially treasonous.

Misdirected Desire

One of Gregory Norminton's aphorisms goes 'There are few things less desirable than misdirected desire'. 

This is true of both genders I think, but for a host of different reasons it is more likely to be a man doing the misdirecting, at least in modern western society. 

However, the story that is seeping through the cracks of the Weinstein scandal is that of the numerous women who might have elected to sign up for Harvey's Faustian pact, presumably to advance their careers. One of the victims has even been dropping hints on twitter about her fellow actresses. 

Certain individuals take misdirected desire more as opportunity than threat. This is true of both genders, yet for a host of different reasons, I'd offer in this instance that it is more likely to be a woman doing the taking, at least in modern western society.

Both ends of this analysis can of course be explained in part by the prevailing inequalities between the sexes. 

But you have to ask yourself whether the phenomenon itself  and the unevenness I have pinpointed —  would vanish completely if this were removed? 

Personally I think more women would tend to abuse this more even spread of power, just not quite to the same extent that men have done their less even share of it up to now. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anti-semitic bias on the Left

Back in the 80s I’d have to try to talk down some seriously self-righteous European lefty types who’d adopted such an absurdly high and mighty position on the situation in Ulster that they seemed in danger of getting a nosebleed. 

These same individuals tended to have a perspective on Palestine casted from the same mold. (Jeremy Corbyn’s career has taken in both forms of partisan jaundice, and the Labour leader apparently remains committed to the second it would seem.)

No matter that more people were displaced  and indeed brutally murdered  amidst the formation of nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Israel is invariably regarded as ground zero for historic injustice by a certain kind of self-consciously progressive person. 

If one steps back however, taking a broader view of the last century and those moments when new states were formed or borders shifted, the fate of the Palestinians — which fell short of an actual genocide (of which there were many in the period) — is not what one might refer to as an outlier. 

So there is a unmistakeable bias  a disproportionate concern for one set of unfortunate circumstances  that any historian would surely want to explain. 

And in my view it will be hard to provide such an explanation for this without addressing the likelihood of anti-semitic prejudice. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Men Apart

These zealots of self-determination always seem to be possessed of a certain nerdishness veering towards creepiness. 

Farage and Salmond had some of it, but Puigdemont is a true poster boy of the phenomenon. 

And in the past, so too the likes of José Martí and Ho Chi Minh.

Ghandi? Let's not go there...

Social Media, The Enemy Within?

Professor Niall Ferguson is rather obviously working this Spectator article into a promo piece for the conceit of his new book — an age-old historical see-sawing between networks and hierarches, the market and the tower.  

Strictly speaking however this particular modern predicament is more about how the ways people are connected online, knowingly and unknowingly, present a threat to the shared fictions that organise their lives when they believe themselves to be 'offline': e.g a variety of inter-network contention. 

A couple of days ago I wrote a post here about the ostensibly Janus-faced nature of 'Brand USA'. Patriotism, combined with the world's greatest military capability, makes the USA an insuperable power in the external, internationally arena. 

Yet the internal divisions or sections that have always existed within American society mean that internally at least, patriotism acts as a rather shrill voice of social control, papering over the cracks. 

And it has been largely successful up to now. But when the Internet was first developed by the country's finest military minds, few would have imagined that it would provide America's enemies with the almost perfect tool for attacking it on the inside

For this is where the true vulnerabilities in the American edifice lie, where the underlying disconnect between the ideal and the actual really matters and is currently only masked by the flimsiest of credos. These divisions were there long before the arrival of more empowered digital networks. 

This is a nation that is peculiarly tribal at the formative level, as anyone who has watched a High School movie can attest. The Internet only facilitates the extension of this playground mentality into the adult sphere. 

I'd suggest that this is one reason why Americans tend to articulate their most cherished positions in such a shrieky fashion  because they intuitively realise that without such a turbo-boost, few of these ideologies can really cope with the reasoned voice of reality. Radicalisation does not require persecution, unless one finds truth oppressive in itself. 

On a slightly separate note I think Ferguson over-eggs the left-leaning tendency of 'Big Tech', which actually tends to lean libertarian. As a historian he should be well aware that the contemporary American association between liberal ideas and socialist ones is largely factitious as almost none of the monolithic socialist regimes of the twentieth century were liberal in any meaningful sense.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oxymorons in Washington

Most of us who are not-American can intuitively grasp that the USA is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of place. 

Sometimes the doc is in charge, sometimes the plain old mister, but this internal conflict and resulting pattern of periodic political alternation has never really been a permanent put-off. 

For we understand that this nation is rather obviously a hybrid: between Old World and New World conditions and values, not quite a proper First World country like Japan or Germany, nor yet a full-on Third World clusterfuck either. 

In contrast with other notable hybrids — Italy or indeed China, say   to the casual visitor the United States can come across as somewhat neither here nor there, for it lacks the profounder allure of a deeper history. 

It all began rather more recently and oxymoronically as the 'Empire of Liberty', a phrase coined by slave-owning Jefferson, and has continued in much the same vein ever since. 

There are always so many things for outsiders to admire, yet while Americans might think their 'brand' is the ideal, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the manner with which the self-image is often out of step with the actual has always been very much part of the package.  

And this, somewhat counter-intuitively, makes global brand USA relatively immune to the sort of permanent trashing one could imagine it might now be receiving at the hands of the moron in the White House. (Even though it has to be noted that the paired down ideal, as currently expressed by the GOP in particular, is becoming less and less uplifting in the international arena.) 

However, extend what you mean by 'other people' to your internal audience - non-white people for instance  and therein you do have a bit of a problem, for Brand USA is much less able to cope with flagrant off-message hypocrisy when it comes to its own citizens, which is why it imposes the signs, symbols and platitudes of patriotism so rigorously at home. 

Kneeling NFL players do seem have found just the right contemporary spot in this old wound to insert and wriggle the finger. Nevertheless their protest is a mild one compared to some of the stuff witnessed in ante-bellum America: such as the public burning of the Constitution (a 'covenant with death') on July 4 by William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. 

One has to wonder what Vice President Pence would have made of THAT. 

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

De-centralisation, aka Anarchy

Post-2008 populist insurgencies have been piggy-backing onto a pre-existing bent in European politics: separatist, anti-establishment sentiment along with the compulsion to push back against globalisation by re-isolating.

In recent times the referendum in Scotland and then in the wider UK when the Conservatives offered a plebiscite over EU membership, the turbo-charging effect of populism has been clear - especially as this form of decision making appears both more popular and more democratic than it actually is.

But England and Scotland were both fully-formed nation states at the start of the modern era. Spain was always going to present a thornier set of problems to an established order confronted by devolving and decentralising tendencies.

This nation has always been more of an amalgamation: of kingdoms, of cultures, of peoples, of languages and dialects, of antiquated legitimacies. Even the modern monarchy sits on a mesh of mutually-reinforcing regional tiles, each with its own form of sovereignty.

The Inquisition and, more recently, the Franco dictatorship provide testimony to just how hard 'conservatives' have had to work to contain Spain's inner contradictions.

Mariano Rajoy was only (barely) able to form a government in Madrid after a second popular consultation. In the form of Podemos the populists are undermining the old status quo from within as well.

I guess I've found Rajoy unpalatable as a politician ever since his abortive attempt to pin the blame for the 2004 atrocities on the Basques - which cost him the premiership and condemned him to looking surly for seven years. In his own mind he is probably a Lincoln-like figure, standing up for the union and the rule of constitutional law, perhaps comforting himself that Abe used a lot more than boots, batons and pepper spray on the secessionist scumbags. If he wins, he might be reckoning, history will give him the same sort of uncomplicated thumbs up, while the would-be breakaways will be remembered as traitors.

For now other EU leaders will support his take on the letter of the Spanish constitution  that sovereignty belong to all — because it rather obviously suits them. But with any further escalation, who knows?

It strikes me that the genre of science fiction reveals that many liberal westerners tend to imagine our collective political future as one of ever larger structures, one of federations, if not empires. For deep down we surely recognise that nationalism is a rather base instinct, and thus anticipate that it will eventually be dissipated by the sort of diversity we witness on the bridge of the starship Enterprise — with only the Klingons literally clinging on to the urges embodied by the likes of Nigel Farage.

Yet let us not forget that Catalunya was the wellspring of the anarchist disposition on the Iberian peninsula prior to the Civil War, and thus one should remember that the alternative utopian path to one big happy human family has always been one of radical de-centralisation.

(A snap I took in Euskadi, 2004)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Vietnam War (Part 1)

Some initial reflections on the introductory episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary. 

I suppose few nations are truly adept at looking at themselves in the mirror, but the USA does seem especially bad at it. 

Last month I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which has an entire building devoted to explaining the course of the war in the Pacific, but the section covering the detonation of two atomic weapons over major urban areas is so tiny as to be completely miss-able.

Having watched just this opener, it does immediately strike to me that the USA is still not ready, culturally, for a no-punches-pulled interpretation of this conflict. The origins bit at least.

Many of the facts here were new to me, and interesting, but the underlying tone of much of the analysis rankled. It was essentially apologetic, at times seemingly determined to deflect as much of the blame from the US as an intelligent audience might bear.

So, we witnessed some archetypally arrogant and perfidious Froggy behaviour (followed by the inevitable capitulation), as well as that of duplicitous native political actors that the Americans ‘didn’t understand’

The French and Japanese presence was put down to a naked compulsion to exploit, whereas the Yanks apparently just wanted to protect freedom and stem the red tide - yet were slowly drawn into conflict against their better, anti-colonial, instincts.

Crucially, we are expected to believe that Eisenhower and his CIA underlings in Indochina were at their most ingenuous in 1954-5, precisely the moment Guatemalans were learning just how cynical and ruthless they could be.

This ‘all men are created equal’ business is the foundational doublethink at the heart of the American project and has led to some extraordinary bouts of hypocrisy over two and a half centuries or so. The irony that it is something Americans broadly share with the French is apparently lost on these film-makers. 

It permits its users an enhanced perception of the failings of others vis-a-vis such a precept, whilst making them almost oblivious to their own.

Before watching episode two I think I shall need to have another go at The Quiet American...

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Plot and Perspective

If I were young again and heading to Film School I think I’d like to write a dissertation on the difference between narrative and camera perspective and why some directors seem a bit oblivious to it. 

Certainly one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year was Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, set in 18th century New York. For most of the text I was thinking how long it would take for the story to be adapted for TV or even the big screen; there are plenty of very ‘cinematic’ moments in the drama. But then at the end Spufford delivers something of an apple-cart upsetting reveal, a well-disguised transformation of narrative perspective that ought to make the reader immediately re-consider everything that has occurred before if not actually start to re-read the whole novel from scratch. 

This is one of those ruses of intelligent literature that should, by rights, make this one of those unfilmable books, yet somehow I still think the temptation to tell this tale anyway (and with lavish costumes) will remain. 

Narrative perspective is often crucial to other aspects of a story, such as plot. 

What a lot of otherwise talented directors don’t quite seem to appreciate is that swapping a first or even third person narrative for the apparently more objective showing rather than telling of the camera’s-eye-view can render an effective plot somehow less so. 

Case in point an otherwise excellent Argentinian film we watched this week - El Otro Hermano - based on Carlos Busqued’s novel Bajo Éste Sol Tremendo. The performances, the grotty rural mise-en-scène ...all top notch. But about 80% of the way in the conclusion turned into one of those utterly predictable yet not completely necessary third acts that writers should try to avoid. 

Now, I’ve not read the novel, but I strongly suspect that the narrative perspective was more firmly cinched to Cetarti, the outsider in this contemptible environment. 

The film however established right from the first moment a sense of symmetry between the goings on around Cetarti and those around local would-be capo Duarte. As the last few minutes approached at least one more interesting and appropriate way of concluding the story was suggested to us. 

Now I have to read the bloody book - if only out of curiosity about how the author managed to marry plot and perspective. 

Revolutions in disguise

For me a ‘revolution’ can be said to have occurred when one group or class hijacks the state along with all its usual mechanisms for mediating between competing interests within that society. In this sense the accession of Trump is as much as revolution in the US as that of Chavez was in Venezuela, even Castro in Cuba. What it suppose it currently lacks is the clear sense that either he or those behind him will openly attempt to make more permanent this direct corporate power grab at the expense of America’s traditional political intermediaries. But it is clear that last November the choice was qualitatively different to the usual formulation at an American general election: a vote for the Donald was not really a straightforward vote against Hilary or even Barack, and it was hardly an endorsement of the GOP. If the citizens of the USA are not too careful they may end up stuck with the consequences of this 'revolution' in disguise for longer than their constitution normally allows. The groundwork for this was rather transparently laid by suggesting to the less sophisticated parts of the electorate that 'liberals' had been slowly effecting an unconstitutional revolution of their own.

A Tale of Two Cyclones

Harvey. This one was being widely reported in Mexican and Central American media from August 18, but the US was simply too distracted by falling statues and resurgent Neo-Nazis and was in effect caught completely unawares. When I left Houston on the 24th I had mentioned the incoming storm to several locals who seemed neither to know or care that much about it. 

Irma. Almost from the moment this one started to swirl in the mid-Atlantic the story was all about the threat it would ultimately pose to Florida - even as it laid waste to several small islands in the Caribbean and then the biggest one. The victims out there in the archipelago face a lose-lose situation in terms of the news cycle now. If the sunshine state does succumb to Irmageddon, this news will dominate for days unless the Donald sets off Armageddon proper. And if the story turns out to be a massive collective ‘phew’ in the southern states, this will have much the same effect, leaving the daminificados of Barbuda etc. largely forgotten. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

'What the fuck just happened here?'

I had a series of affectingly positive experiences on my recent trip to the American south. I have reflected however that if I were to try to somehow visualise them graphically, they’d all turn up disconcertingly proximate on the spectrum to some of my more negative experiences. As I think David Lynch has been at pains to suggest in his now-concluded Twin Peaks revival, there is a marked Jekyll and Hyde quality to many aspects of ‘Americana’. 

In the past I have tended to divide the places I have visited into those that are merely ‘interesting’ and those that can somehow be elevated into the premium category of 'deeply or even disturbingly interesting', to which nations such as Russia (the USSSR when I was present), Japan and Mexico belong in my notes. 

I’d add the USA, but as Lynch has demonstrated time and again, ‘interesting’ is far from being the most applicable adjective for an experience that more than occasionally teeters on the dreamlike, hangs the hyper on reality and which seems both so self-contained and yet at once full of worm-holes. 

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?


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



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. 


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.