Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Diversity Problem

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Welsh wally comes to Guatemala...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Take out the train?

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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

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

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ched Evans Saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Conscious cluelessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

¨The old imperialist-based union is bust...¨

This piece in today's Guardian by Irvine Welsh is fairly typical of the sort of opinion which has been getting my back up in the last few weeks. 

There's much talk of how Scotland has been covering itself in glory, putting on such a fine show of people power and 'true democracy', yet hardly any mention of the thuggery deployed by the YES campaign or the general spectacle of provincial small-mindedness behind this shining example to the world. 

At times it has been like being transported back to the 80s: class war, but this time with an ethnic-nationalist edge. Perhaps another reason it has felt like such a throwback is the discourse of the pro-independence campaign has resembled that of a middle-aged bloke who still thinks and speaks like a twenty-year-old student. 

It's a worldview where greed and incompetence are the only characteristics of the world's greatest financial service industry, where the UK is an 'imperialist' structure (I suppose under this same logic the EU is the Fourth Reich!), the BBC is primarily an establishment mouthpiece, the oil of the North Sea would belong to me the day after I move to Edinburgh and all that can be said of Westminster politicians is that they are inherently both elitist and corrupt. 

Some of these people need to seriously grow up and ditch this pathetic posturing. Guys, you don't live over here in Latin America; instead you enjoy the quite extraordinary privilege of being citizens of one of the world's most open and mature democracies.*

Anyway, it's just an enormous shame that old historical boundaries provide 10% of the British population with a license to carry on in this thoroughly childish manner. 

*Ironically perhaps, in the form of Salmond and the SNP they have just narrowly avoided rule by a Latin American-style populist demagogue.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Blue state?

The idea of reorganising our national boundaries to allow Scotland to 'manage their own affairs' sounds sort of fair until you think of doing the same thing in say the USA: along red and blue state lines. It surely wouldn't resolve most of the deeper issues, in fact it would create a kind of artificial barrier between them, so that the longer term positive effects of political contention would be dampened. 

Red staters would get to keep heterosexual-only marriage, Fox News, 'Freedom' and cohabiting humans and dinosaurs, while the blue-staters could have abortion, socialised medicine, a limp-wristed foreign policy and as many Guatemalans as they can handle. 

In the short term at least, it's hard to see how you would not end up with one essentially Republican-dominated nation and another contrastingly Democratic one. And suppose it was the right-thinking folk of the likes of New York and LA that decided to erect a definitive political barrier between themselves an those 'effing' rednecks in Alabama and Wyoming, would it not occur to them that they were selfishly cutting loose and thus politically condemning all the people over in Hicksville who either currently share their liberal values or might some day come around to doing so? 

Back to Scotland. The differences here are twofold. Firstly, in the last decade or so the clash of values has been much less of a 50-50 thing than it has been over in the States; where each ideological block has appeared to have a roughly equal chance of grabbing the executive branch. It seems that the Scots feel about Labour now as east coast Democrats might feel if their party colleagues in the fly-over states had started denying evolution just to get into government. 

Secondly, while the resentments in the USA have been stoked by all sorts of devious populists, in this respect Alex Salmond has a clear advantage in that he has been able to repackage them along slick nationalist lines.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Palestinians in Gaza vs Cubans in Miami

Let's just consider for a moment the similarities between the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Cubans in Miami. 

These are far from perfect analogues, yet somehow I think the comparison is instructive, not least because one consistently exercises the conscience of well-meaning European chatterers in a way that the other never has, or will. 

Here are two exiled communities that woke up one morning and found that a new state founded on a wholly antipathetic worldview had popped up  seemingly out of nowhere  and taken everything from them. Deprived of all their property they had to flee to a neighbouring territory, where they have spent more than half a century harbouring an essentially irrational belief that one day they will return to their homeland and all will be restored to them. This will of course never happen. The world moves on. 

So, the originating historical 'injustices' underlying these two situations do bare some comparison, whether progressive-minded people like it or not. 

The similarities tend to end there of course, because in Palestine the new state and the exiles have been engaged in determinedly bloody conflict ever since. 

It is also true that none of the friendly neighbouring powers stepped in to welcome and integrate the Palestinians in the same way that United States did with the anti-Castro Cubans. And now, after several generations, both the longing and the hostility is starting to wane as younger, US-born Cubans start to rethink their identity. 

Something a Norwegian friend of mine said about resisting conquest the other day got me thinking. He was referring to his own family and resistance to German invasion during WWII. The implication was that conquest is always a bad thing and that violent resistance to it is always the most admirable approach. 

The trouble here is that the behaviour of Germany in the last century now has a highly distorting effect on any attempt to draw usefully balanced lessons from the historical past, whether the issue under consideration is appeasement, ethnic cleansing, or indeed civilian casualties from bombing.* Sometimes one has to force oneself to look a bit further back in order to achieve a proper perspective. 

In a world full of murder and mayhem there's no denying that Palestine too has a massively disproportionate hold on the consciousness of educated outsiders, plus a claim to geopolitical significance that is in some senses dangerously self-fulfilling. 

Victims of US drone attacks in Pakistan can surely only dream of the attention that those of Israeli missile attacks have been getting these past few weeks. 

The island where I was born was subjected to multiple invasions and conquests in its early history. First came the Romans, and of course that hilarious 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian accurately pinpoints some of the obvious paradoxes behind this particular variety of subjugation. 

When Roman imperial power in Britain collapsed the islanders were Christian in faith and the legend of King Arthur suggests that they were none too pleased with the arrival of the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Many fled into the far corners of the land, effectively creating Wales and Cornwall — the Gaza Strips of Dark Age Britain. 

DNA evidence nevertheless suggests that the majority stayed put, and as the Anglo-Saxons took up Christianity, they in turn adopted early-English. Both sides adapted to the change at the top and got on with their lives, in part because in the end there was no fundamental conflict of worldview to keep them at each other's throats. 

Then in 1066 two alternative versions of my Norwegian friend's ancestors decided they wanted to take over political control of England. The first lot  the authentic variety  were quickly defeated, but the second of these simultaneous invasions, led by Francophile Norwegians, aka the Normans, was successful. 

These French-speaking Norwegians are possibly the most intriguing race of conquerors in the history of the world. Utterly brutal in achieving their goals, once settled in their newly-acquired territories they usually revealed themselves to be highly open-minded and adaptable. The societies they established in southern Italy and, most notably, Palestine, were astonishingly pluralistic and tolerant from a cultural (and religious) perspective. Conquest in these territories looked briefly like what we moderns would call a win win, even for the Normans' Jewish and Muslim subjects. 

In England they took control of the state and all the land, leaving the previous elite with nothing. The conquered were not displaced however; they stayed and kept their language and some of their traditions and ultimately it was the Normans who ended up speaking English, just as they had switched to French on the continent. 

Norman civilisation was at once both superior in some respects and inferior in others to that of the societies that fell under its sway. The Normans themselves seemed to get this and applied their stranglehold in a manner that can look oddly malleable to us today. At one stage they even set their sights on Constantinople. Perhaps their only real cock-up was Ireland, the long-term consequences of which have been lamentable.

Norman rule in Palestine was short-lived partly because a new race of recently-arrived and recently-converted Muslims  the Seljuk Turks — brought a fervently Jihadi perspective to ownership of the Holy Land. And so it has continued. The Normans had jumped on the Holy War bandwagon as a means to an end. For subsequent would-be conquerors of this very troubled part of the globe the reverse has more often been the case. 

Could Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims ever find a way to cooperate in fostering a tolerant, pluralistic society of the kind the Normans specialised in? Right now this seems the least likely outcome, and yet of course it is the only one that could provide a pathway to lasting peace. 

* More French 'innocent civilians' died on D-Day than American soldiers i.e. more than 5000. If someone had filmed them their dead bodies would have looked much like Palestinian dead bodies this week. 

Friday, June 13, 2014


One reason that I find the upcoming anniversary of the outbreak of WWI so pertinent is that many of the anxieties floating around in the culture a hundred years ago have their analogues in our own. To listen to the likes of Nigel Farage, Pope Francis or any number of contemporary public opinionators is akin to tuning into a modern rehash of the litany of existential fears that gripped the West at the beginning of the last century - selfishness, secularism, materialism, homosexuality, aliens in our midst, women on the rise, falling birth rates (though cats and dogs were not specifically blamed to my knowledge), that galling parade of shallow hedonists etc. 

Many openly wondered back then if the terrorists were right; we were becoming flaccid and degenerate. General Friedrich von Bernhardi, author of Germany and the Next War (1911) bewailed that "selfishness and intrigue run riot, and luxury obliterates idealism," while Max Nordau's 1892 bestseller Degeneration (Entartung) claimed that western culture was being systematically undermined by greed, materialism and the relentless quest for pleasure. 

This will all be familiar to twenty first century readers. What will perhaps not be is the preferred antidote a century ago  war, or at least a conscious recourse to militarism. Many of Europe's leaders then surmised that externalising the struggle would resolve all the contradictions within the nation, cleansing the corruption supposedly chewing away at the fabric of civilisation. (So, in a sense WWI resulted from a displaced attempt to dodge the ideas floating around at the time, whereas WWII could more easily be characterised as a head-on conflict between them.) 

The Daily Mash piece on June 6th this year, 70th anniversary of D-Day landings, could not have poked this raw nerve more effectively: "The veterans of D-Day have marked the 70th anniversary by thanking Britain for becoming shallow and worthless. The soldiers who liberated Europe from fascism stressed we had done them proud with our relentless focus on money, celebrity, clothing and football."  

Here, albeit in satirical form, is the abiding sense that we are somehow lesser beings than the brave military men who set aside selfish pursuits in order, kill each other. They saved us, goes the refrain; we should be forever grateful. We are not worthy. We are in fact, rather like the men who lived peacefully and pleasurably for decades before the whole apocalypse kicked off in 1914 - 'unmanly'. 

Yet while the personal sacrifices of many are to be both honoured and remembered, one should never lose sight of the fact that they belonged to several generations of westerners whose collective response to progress and modernist ideas was an almost neurotic resort to mechanised mass murder on an unprecedented scale. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Moment of Crisis

The First World War, a conflict where the major European protagonists had a strong sense of moral purpose but little in terms of concrete objectives, was made possible by the crystalisation of national identities in the years immediately preceding it. 

The results of last week's voting across the continent reveals that we are some way into a new phase, where the national community is in crisis, and knows it. This manifests itself as a straight conflict of interest between the rooted and the consciously uprooted. Some of the latter are comparatively poor and seeking better opportunities across nearby borders, but many belong to the globalised urban elites, who have found that they owe much of their disproportionate affluence to a transnational perspective, and are thus inclined to favour the far-reaching technocratic institutions which appear to underpin their future economic wellbeing. 

The comparatively rooted meanwhile strongly suspect that they are getting the raw end of the deal (which they are...) And yet, I surmise, they must also deep down suspect that there is no going back to the way things used to be, that semi-mythical past when government policies and budgets were constructed primarily in the interests of the clearly-situated taxpayers of the nation state. 

And one suspects that also, on some subconscious level at least, they have recognised the essentially - annoyingly - reasonable nature of the counter-argument that the smug globalised elites have deployed, because their own protests - be they Tea Party activists, Scottish secessionists or immigrant-phobes - have become increasingly counter-rational (when not economically suicidal) and, in the immediate term, this can surely only be further damaging to democracy. 

I've had some direct experience of a mirco-cosmic version of these tensions as I used to make a living working both for a company and beyond it. And of course the likes of WPP, Starbucks, Google and Apple are doing the same thing with regards to nation states and their regulations (and other limitations).

In both cases the key argument for such practices is that they are both the way of the future and a technique for increasing the big numbers for all. These bigger numbers do not however necessarily translate into the sort of universally lifting boats that rising tides are supposed to produce.

So the rooted are right to question the new status quo, at least as it is currently structured. What worries me is that people are turning to emotional, counter-factual, self-defeating platforms in response. Whatever 'good arguments' exist for blocks like the EU or indeed the UK, will be ignored by people who have simply decided to switch off their brains out of pique for the way they have been treated.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth vs Acceptability

"In point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits" > Willard Van Orman Quine. 

For an ontological relativist like Quine, both objects and supernatural beings were artifacts of culture — fictions if you like — but he considered the former superior in that they are more efficient for predicting events i.e. useful fictions. Treated the right way, they work.

Philosophy is born with the human desire to know the world as it really is. In the West Thales of Miletus is credited with being the first person to suggest a discrepancy between appearances and reality, and thus the first true philosopher.

Religion then, could be seen to originate with the notion that life will always be better and simpler if we pretend that we already know how the world really is. And, I would suggest, survives today in the West out partly of a fear of recognising the world for what it might be.

Anyway, the whole universe could be a grand illusion, but I'm still here putting the cat out at 4am every morning. Science works, bitches...but that does not (necessarily) make it True. It can be trusted, but one is not obliged to BELIEVE in it.

This is because while philosophy is the quest to know the world as it really is, science involves constructing an ever-improving approximation between our knowledge and objective reality...if such a thing exists. It's certainly a moving target if ever there was one.

Of course it's a perfectly valid philosophical position to suggest an identity between these two projects, but that it not really what Richard Dawkins is up to, because all philosophical positions tend to be inside his blind spot. The open scorn he pours on theology is thus accompanied by an more unstated disregard for philosophy - and not just metaphysics, but any attempt to take an intellectual leap out beyond the strictly pragmatic approach.

You'll find he refers to the latter as 'reason', but his is a rationalism with artificial barriers at both ends. Comfortably still inhabiting a largely Newtonian universe, he's disinclined to allow reason to soar upwards into the increasingly counterintuitive fields of quantum physics and cosmology, and he doesn't seem to like it either when, down below in the real world, practical applications of scientific theory also appear to require the attentions of (moral) philosophers. I once heard Dawkins in a live Q&A session squirming a bit on the issue of cloning, and he ended up with a formulation that sounded depressingly Werner Von Braun: i.e. "Vunce ze rocketz go up, who carez vair zey come down?".

Needless to say, when Britain needed a professional verdict on human embryo experiments they turned to a philosopher, Girton's former Mistress Baroness Warnock. I have a sneaking suspicion that Richard Dawkins must at the time have thought that only a scientist ought to be allowed to take such decisions. It works bitches, what more do you need to know?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pantsdown and the Proxy Effect

When the Crimea recently opted out of rule from Kiev, former Lib-Dem leader Paddy Ashdown penned an article suggesting that Russia had some significant — and rather topical — previous in stirring up Slavic irredentism to very dangerous ends, describing the Sarejevo slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as political assassination by proxy, in which the Tsar was the ultimate author of this most earth-shattering of crimes. 

This viewpoint has some immediate ironies and absurdities that are worth pointing out. Firstly, although the Russians did indeed encourage Serbian expansionism in the years leading up to WWI, there is no evidence of a direct link with the Black Hand, the extremist, deep state organisation in Belgrade that planned the attack in Sarajevo. But more importantly, which position did Britain and France take up in 1914? Rather than talking the Tsar out of his unconditional support for the Serbs, they publicly denied the legitimacy of Austro-Hungary's grievance against them, scorning the credibility of the enquiry which found the breadcrumbs leading back from Princip to the government of Nikola Pašić. 

What Ashdown might instead have alluded to was the paranoia about Russia coupled with an exaggerated sense of its capabilities which pervaded Europe at the start of the last century, and how this in fact became one of the key factors contributing to a hardening of block mentalities. 

On paper the Russian army was at least 30% larger than that of Germany and Austro-Hungary combined. The at least partly irrational sense of threat that this generated led military thinkers in Berlin to consider the notion of a 'preventative war', so convinced were they that the Tsar meant them ill and that Russian power could only increase. The French had a similarly view of Russian military strength and feared the day when the St Petersburg would no longer need the Entente for their own security, leaving Paris once again alone and exposed to the Prussian invaders that had so humiliated them only recently. For the British the Russian 'threat' impacted on their strategic focus outside Europe on the fringes of the empire. They were drawn into a closer understanding with both the French and Russians precisely in order to safeguard distant 'jewels' like India. So in a sense the Russians did provoke WWI - but not in the way Ashdown lately suggested  the proxy effect was largely psychological. 

The calamity of continental war needed a spark to set it off, but the instability of the Balkan region had in a way been pre-prepared by all sides as a causus belli some time before the plot against the Archduke came to fruition. The French, fearing for the loyalty and commitment of their principal ally, had decided that the circumstances that triggered their alliance would have to originate in a area in which the Russians had a strong strategic interest. If Germany invaded France, they reasoned, the Russians might not mobilise in a timely fashion. This sense of foreboding was directly paralleled in Berlin, where it was felt that the armies of Franz Joseph would be disinclined to get out of bed unless the Russian threat against their own alliance played out in the Balkan backyard of the Empire. So, instead of treating the dispute between the Austrians and Serbs as a localised, somebody else's problem sort of shambles (as we do seem to be treating the developments in the Ukraine today), the great powers one hundred years ago had rather deliberately attached this regional powder keg to their detonator. And, the politicians of the day had a sense of honour when it came to following up on treaties and agreements, however vague, that our own lot would probably find hard to comprehend. 

In the end perhaps the final irony of the crisis that led to WWI - and thus, albeit indirectly to WWII as well - is that the Russians and Austrians were almost last in declaring war against each other. Meanwhile Germany had invaded France through neutral Belgium, something the French had been planning to do in reverse, but were just not quick enough. 

The modern lessons from all this seem to have less to do with whether to appease or confront Russia — or indeed keeping them onside at all costs on the basis of shared geopolitical fears and antagonisms — than about understanding the true nature of its intentions and the threat that it may or may not present to the contemporary world's other power blocks.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

No Reservations

So they can send someone in to open the place up?

Seriously, this is actually one of the few places in town that stations two guys at the entrance so that anyone stopping to glance at the menu can be hauled inside! 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Back in Playa

Ah, Playa. One has so much to choose from when it comes to getting a souvenir for that special person back home. 

Anyway, here I was just about to start writing my magnum opus on all the ways Mexico and Mexicans get right up my nose*, when I arrived back here in Playa for the umpteenth time in 26 years and then suddenly all seemed well again with the world. 

The layers of tack keep getting laid down, one on top of the other. This time I note that since I was last here in June '13 one of my favourite sections of the Quinta has been demolished in its entirety and further up towards Constituyentes there's a really ugly new mall selling $90 plastic flip-flops. 

And yet still, I cannot find it in me to hate this town. 

* Not the food, I hasten to add. 

True Detective

Not sure I liked the way this wound up, especially Rust's epiphany. It seemed to be heading down the familiar James Lee Burke route - Louisiana as America's eschatological dumping ground, where unholy alliances between child molesters, soul-less capitalists, evangelical bullies and corrupt old southern dynasties form with the regularity of storm fronts. 

But then it sort of veered off into Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. Frankly Reggie the Douche or whatever his name was, would have made a better principal nasty, though really the problem here was that the narrative was really about the mismatched relationship between the two guys from CID. They called the other cops Suck and Fuck, but were at times better deserving of the names themselves. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Isla Aguada

Soggy Island. 

Old school Yucatán; off-the-grid: no credit cards, no wi-fi, and no decent coffee, anywhere. 

I used to find these sort of locations relaxing. Nowadays there's hardly anywhere more stressful! 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Vendiendo el alma de El Panorama

En mi opinión, es obvio que quien permita la instalación de ésta antena en su propia vivienda le vale un rábano lo siguiente...

  • Los valores, respeto y sentimientos ajenos

  • El medio ambiente

  • El bienestar de su propia familia, sus amigos, conocidos y la comunidad en general

  • La salud de los niños en los colegios y hogares en sus alrededores

  • El esfuerzo constante del vecindario para mejorar y mantener el valor de sus propiedades

  • Más de tres décadas de empeño comunitario con el desarollo considerado de la colonia 

  • Convertirse en eterna persona non grata en su comunidad

  • La vigilancia del Consejo Nacional Para la Protección de La Antigua Guatemala en preservar el aspecto bello de ésta ciudad y el polígono protegido dentro de cual han ubicado ésta monstruosidad de acero

  • Quienes le hicieron una lavada de cerebro también quizás tratarán de lavarse las manos sin consciencia alguna

  • Y así, la posibilidad de hundirse solito a sí mismo con las consecuencias de tal contrato. 

El Panorama sin sus paisajes especiales sería como Bosques sin árboles or Jardines sin flores. 

Si existe el Infierno, habrá un lugar especial dentro del mismo  y más profundo aún del nivel reservado para los materialistas, los altaneros y los testarudos   en dónde seguramente terminan los desalmados. 

Irónicamente, pareciera que te lleva al cielo...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

El Renegado

Gonzalo Guerrero, as the better-informed Mexican schoolchild will tell you, was the father of the first mestizo

What they might not add is that Ixmo, the first-born daughter of this Spaniard himself born around 1470 in Palos de la Frontera (Huelva) ended up being sacrificed at Chichen Iztá in order that the Mayan deities might go a bit easier on the locusts * 

Reports of Guerrero's early career show little signs of the coming apostasy. He participated as an arcabucero in the conquest of Granada in 1492 and then left for Naples. With his fortune still unmade, he subsequently decided to cross the Atlantic, ending up at the Darien colony in what is now Panama. 

On August 15th 1511 he boarded a ship bound for Santo Domingo. One reason the Maya had singularly failed to branch out further into the Caribbean is that the seas between the Yucatán and Jamaica are more than occasionally treacherous with strong north-south currents. And so it was that a sudden storm in this very space put an end to Guerrero's voyage and he ended up on a raft with twenty other survivors, eighteen men and two women, including the captain Valdivia, regidor to Núñez de Balboa

Only eight were still alive when the raft washed up on the Riviera Maya. Unfortunately the welcoming party consisted of the notoriously non-pacific Cocom tribe who immediately halved that number by sacrificing four of them - Valdivia included - and then deposited the remainder in a cage and proceeded to fatten them up with a view to repeating the ceremony in the near future. 

Somehow the quartet escaped and made their way to Xaman-Há aka Playa del Carmen, then run by Taxmar, cacique of the Tutul Xiúes. 

The chief gave them to a sacerdote and general so-and-so called TeohomTwo were duly worked to death, leaving just Guerrero and a Catholic priest called Gerónimo de Aguilar

Taxmar felt sorry for the pair and had them removed from Teohom's residence. Guerrero repaid the chief's compassion by making himself handy as a military advisor - Taxmar duly defeated the Coco Bongo Cocomes using an ancient Macedonian-style phalanx and then gifted his new prize asset to to Na Chan Can, headman of the Cheles** in Ichpaatún (north of the bay of Chetumal). 

Guerrero was assigned to the tribe's leading warrior Balam and achieved a near equality of status after saving his mentor from a caimán and then leading the Cheles to many victories of the flowery sort. Needless to say, he was starting to go native with only his untended beard still a bit of a give-away on his now thoroughly tattooed and pierced person. He married Na Chan Can's daughter Zazil-Há and started Mexico's first mestizo family. 

Meanwhile, Gerónimo de Aguilar was less prone to aculturation; being a celibate man of the cloth he chose not take a Mayan wife.

In 1519 Cortés landed on Cuzamil (Cozumel) and heard rumours about two Mayan-speaking compatriots over on the mainland. According to a member of his expedition, Bernal Díaz de Castillo - future mayor of La Antigua Guatemala and ancestor of the brewers of Cerveza Gallo - the conquistador imagined that the pair would both jump at the chance of rescue after eight years of living rough and would no doubt also immediately sign up as translators. 

Gerónimo de Aguilar did, but his former shipmate decided not to give up his life as a Mayan warlord, helping his adopted people repulse various Spanish expeditions to the peninsula. The well-organised resistance met by Francisco de Montejo at Champotón in May 1527 is also suggestive of tactical nous that Guerrero instilled in the townships of the Yucatán. 

In 1536 Gonzalo Guerrero's days as traitorous thorn in the side of the Spanish empire came to an end beside the river Ulúa in Honduras. He had come to the aid of the cacique of Ticamaya, then under attack from an offshoot of Pedro de Alvarado's invasion force led by Lorenzo de Godoy. Wounded at first by an arrow that pierced his navel, el renegado was finished off, rather ironically, by an arquebus. 

* That's her at the back of the group in the statue, tugging rather plaintively on her mother's skirt. 

They might also fail to mention of course that he was almost certainly the first European hippy to visit Playa del Carmen. 

** My cat Osli has a chronic case of cheles

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure

The Hairy Bikers, aka David Myers of Cumbria and Si King of Geordie-land, have already established an audience across the pond via The History Channel. So its hardly surprising that the BBC has decided to kowtow a bit to the North Americans in this new 'Asian Adventure' series - for example, by labeling Burma as Myanmar on the illustrative maps. 

One might suppose that our former-colonial cousins might struggle at times with the northern English accents that the intrepid and hirsute pair bring to the table, but the Beeb have stopped short of providing subtitles...except when Myers suddenly essays a Brummie accent, thereby taking the verbal obfuscation to the next level. 

For balance, an English-speaking member of a Thai hill tribe was also later subjected to the humiliation of encoded captions. 

Tecs Mecs

The more I think about it the more cross I am with AA Gill for describing Mexican food as 'just nappies'. In many ways this is worse than the infamous 'sick with cheese on it' remark made by Richard Hammond on Top Gear. 

It's true that a lot of what goes for Mexican grub internationally, especially in Europe, ultimately derives from the northern deserts and admittedly does tend to resemble stodgy cowboy fuel, over-relying on flour, cheese and pinto beans. 

But what of the food one encounters further south in the area with deeper links to ancient cultures of Mexico - Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Toltecs, Olmecs, even the wretched Chichimecs. 

Lets call this Tecs-Mecs as opposed to Tex-Mex. This is a culinary heritage that has shared big ticket ingredients like avocado, tomato, chilli, chocolate and corn with the rest of us. It surely remains the basis of one of the world's great original cuisines. 

Still not convinced? Well try some of the great moles of Oaxaca and Puebla. Or if one is still a tad risk-averse to Mexican streetfood (I'd have to admit that a pozol in Chiapa de Corzo nearly killed me) then have a mosey around this rather enticing menu from the Casa de Oaxaca, Nappies? I think not. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mirrors and beads

It is practically axiomatic that the sixteenth century colonisation of this neck of the woods was a sort of cynical con-trick carried out by dastardly Iberian desperados, who erupted into the naïve Edenic paradise then inhabited by the American natives and 'traded their tiny mirrors and beads for all the wealth available in gold, silver and precious metals and stones.'

How much truth is there in this version of events? Not a great deal I would say. In the specific local case of Mesoamerica the initial cataclysm was more akin to a confrontation between two ruthless imperial powers, in which tactics and microbes ultimately made all the difference. 

We tend to forget that Mesoamerican society at that time was remarkably similar to that of late medieval Europe in terms of its social stratification and inequitable sophistication. 

Seville, then the largest city in Spain was but a quarter of the size of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. The rich of this city had a fairly diverse diet while the poor had to make do with around three pounds of maize a day, ground into tortillas. While there was near-universal education, the high-born had exclusive access to special schools called calmécac. If this is a "lost way of being human", it is nevertheless a familiar one. 

Only members of the nobility - the pipiltín - could drink chocolate or wear cotton. Sumptuary laws further specified that the upper classes alone could use glazed pottery or could sport cloaks that hung below the knee and that the poor had to shed their sandals when in the presence of their social superiors. 

The bulk of the population of old Mexico were labourers characterised as macehual, most of whom had right of access to a specific plot of land which they could pass on to their children. They tended to be organised into calpulli, a cross between a clan and a guild, but in the last century before the arrival of the Spaniards the growing wealth and entrenched power of the elite had started to diminish the influence of these collectives. 

The second largest group, roughly a third of the population - were mayeques, a class equivalent to the European serfs who spent their days working on land that belonged to someone else. Poets described them as 'bumblebees' that buzzed around at the edge of public celebrations waiting for the customary handouts of maize stew*.

It is believed that many of the mayeques were descendents of people that had been living in the valley of Mexico before the comparatively brutish Aztecas of Aztlán showed up. Those not thus subsumed into Mexican society were often forced to devote their best fields for growing produce for the metropolis in a manner that forshadowed the Chinese land grab in contemporary Africa. 

Drunkenness among urban labourers was reportedly on the increase in spite of a strict law that decreed death for two-time offenders. Only grandparents over 70 were exempt. The young and the poor were theoretically prohibited pulque except at certain festivals. Adultery was also a capital offence. 

The Mexica's use of a 360-day calendar - the Xiuhupohualli - meant there was a section of the population born on one of the five apparently useless days in the solar year who were basically considered doomed from birth. (And if you were born on the day of 2-Rabbit you were probably even more screwed.) 

By far the worst aspect of being at the bottom of the social ladder in old Mexico was that in the early sixteenth century this was increasingly likely to mean death on the sacrificial block. During the period of military expansion a hundred years earlier under bellicose deputy-emperor Tlacaelel, it was more usually battle captives who were picked to perish under the obsidian knife (actually flint, because obsidian is brittle and thus better as a metaphor). Then, as imperial rule settled into a more stable pattern, tributes - often children - were sent by the subjugated to be sacrificed. But Huitzilopochtli grew ever greedier for blood, and so the numbers had to be made up by ripping out the hearts of Tenochtitlán's own plebs - all of them sold the dubious 'espejito' of thus departing for Omeyocan, the VIP paradise reserved for those who died the 'flowery death' and not Mictlan, the grey airport lounge of annihilation occupied by more conventional cadavers. 

The Nahuatl word for sacrifice, nextlaoaliztli, means act of payment, and in old Mexico, as in old Castile, a key aspect of being outside the elite was not being fiscally-exempt, yet here there was the additional anxiety that one's own person could form part of the tribute system. 

So, one has to ask, were the dirt poor indigenas of these parts really having it so good before the bearded men from the east arrived? 

 Remind anyone of posadas today?