Thursday, December 31, 2015

A compromised ideal

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

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

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

The local archetype

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A few words on fundamentalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Homeland, Season 5

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

Friday, September 04, 2015

Pausing for pity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Roxana!

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

Linea 1 y Linea 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table Talk

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

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

Don't dismiss the consensus narrative

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hearts of Darkness

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

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

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Polling Day....

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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Diversity Problem

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Welsh wally comes to Guatemala...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Take out the train?

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

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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

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

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ched Evans Saga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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