Friday, September 23, 2016

El Desengaño Anti-Populista

On balance it probably would have been better if Gloria Álvarez had screeched ‘this shitty country’ or even ‘our shitty country’ as opposed to ‘your shitty country’. 

Maybe the slip occurred because she has been promoting her book in Argentina, where there just might be something in the air that tends to inflate one’s pelotas. But she claims it happened a while back. 

Slighting the patria is the big red button in all of Latin America and she should have been aware of this before calling the journalist; along with the intuition that most hacks tend to record phone calls and then sit around polishing these little gems.

But it isn’t really the affront to the hemisphere’s hyptertrophied patriotism that bothered me when I listened to La Glow’s invective. It was the barely-concealed threat at the end, which suggested to me that she is possibly more part of the problem than the solution. 

The possession of multiple faces is very much a national trait. At the very least, most Chapines appear to have a public face plus a more private brincón persona, which sometimes escapes into the public sphere. (Viz. current Presidente). 

In my own experience people who state 'You don't know who you are dealing with / No sabés con quien te metés! really ought to have framed this as a question for themselves in the first instance. 

On at least one occasion someone I know very well, but who was at the time unaware that they were addressing me online, has invoked a whole host of largely imaginary wing-men, including AK wielding narcos who were supposedly going to come and fuck me up, tout suite. 

The irony here is that Crazyglorita's use of huevos is indicative of how the term has become a euphemism in this region for an often pathetic display of power by the otherwise powerless. So, in the context of El Engaño Populista, the question one obviously faces is what happens when these individuals actually achieve some sort of power?

And whilst you might need the common touch to win votes here, on the other hand, sacando lo corriente can end up being a longish-term handicap.  (Viz. current Presidente; again.) 

Up until this SoundCloud leak, the worst that could be said of Gloria was that her tirades were full of rather too obvious redactions, as if her cherished ideology were wielding an unconscious black marker pen. 

Yes, she tended to 'parrot' the sage pronouncements of her intellectual idols such as Hayek, but I was always loath myself to parrot the 'Crazy Lorita' put down, because I detected a nastier, more dismissive edge to its use on social media in Guatemala. There's an all too obvious tendency to respond to her polemics with barely-concealed sexism or class-chippery. (Even this blog post is not entirely free of it.)

I come from an academic tradition which abhors dogma in all forms, and this has left me with the abiding impression that ideologies should be sternly interrogated and then, if necessary, rubbished. 

However, another lesson I learned as an historian was that bias and loudly ground axes are everywhere, and that the truth isn't something that can be said to exist apart from all these partial sources; it is something one has to try to piece together from them. 

Buscandoasyd accuses Gloria of being manca, but one-armedness is surely the abiding characteristic of those on the Left that her public positions most discomfit. 

Yes, somewhat ironically, there is a degree of populist rhetoric within her critiques of Latin American populismo, but maybe this is just a consequence of her attempt to do something a tad unusual: address, from the right, the widest possible audience with a quirky, vernacular, on-the-verge-of-popular touch. 

Yet she is not, as far as I can tell, attempting to use the politics of resentment to snatch power. What she might be accused of doing however, like many of her apparent opponents on the Left, is using hostile language that, whilst appearing to be directed at those on the opposite extreme of the political spectrum, actually serves to undermine the centre. 

We see this in the manner with which Latin American lefties deploy the term neoliberalismo for example. Meanwhile, Gloria Álvarez's support for Gary Johnson in the US election is 'deplorable', as HRC might say, because voting for third parties in America has been compared to sending out a prayer, something which Gloria would no doubt disapprove of. It also has the potential to skew the result towards more unpleasant agendas. 

Anyway, in spite of the fact that Gloria has been rather publicly found out using palabras soeces - rather like the possibly Crazy Lorita that was supposed to sing Alabaré, Alabaré and instead mouthed Que perra es mi amiga - I do still think she can perform a public service as an often lone voice here against the notion that political change (e.g. a redistribution of state power) can deliver a full package of solutions. 

I constantly aver that the deeper problems of this nation are cultural not political. What the country surely needs is not to much to dismiss Gloria's 'propaganda’ outright, but to develop a citizenry that can see through it in such a way that they can find their way through - intellectually - to the middle way on their own, at least when necessary. 

So, hard though it might be for me to admit, in some ways we might actually need the partiality of unmistakeable dogmatists. 

And here in Latin America it is especially handy when the right appears to be offering its own alternative to leftist universalism, instead of adopting a position which keeps its head below the parapet or seems otherwise grounded solely in vested interests and selfishness.

Unfortunately however, Gloria appears to have wound up in much same situation as this bird...

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Fresh off their BREXIT success, 375 'top' scientists have warned the masses not to vote for Trump. 

As Einstein probably didn't say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. 

Exhbition (2013)

A slice of London life from Joanna Hogg, but more of the negative sort of nostalgic experience for us.

We ended up ticking off all the background peculiarities we's almost forgotten and which had once seemed ever-present parts of the panorama: pneumatic drilling, leftover Xmas prezzies like scented candles, poncy estate agents, scaffolding and scaffolders, cramped lifts, internal intercoms, venetian blinds down during the daytime, radiators, duvets, sash windows, tiny tables packed with framed family pics, etc. etc.

And that worrying sense that only a city like London could provide status to such obviously useless people.

Free Movement of People

Liberal cosmopolitans, amongst whose number I suppose I should include myself, tend to warm to the idea of free movement. People should be permitted to live and work where they choose, shouldn't they? If I thought anything different I'd be open to the charge of humungous hypocrisy. the context of the EU, the theory faces some of the same headwinds in practice as the single currency. If the situation on the ground - opportunity, growth, working conditions, benefits etc. - varies between member states, and there is only a semblance of central control, then some sort of political backlash from the 'natives' (in GB's case largely former Labour voters) is almost inevitable. 


The USA’s status as the most religious nation in the West has numerous upshots, but one that perhaps goes less examined is its more marked tendency to muddle economics and politics with ethics. 

Hence the rather absurd inquiry as to whether society’s unfortunates are somehow morally superior or inferior than the norm still arises in many modern nations, but in none more so than gringolandia

If you are a Democrat it is fine to emphasise the relative highmindedness of the disadvantaged, as long as they are minorities of course; for if the downwardly-mobile are white, they are deplorable. And for the Republicans, well, we know how deplorable they tend to think the minorities are. 

To a slightly lesser extend, both blocks also tend to view the upwardly-mobile through ethically-tinted goggles. 

Rich people, poor people, middling people...we're all just people. Any political discourse which suggests that some of us are better or worse than the average owing to our socioeconomic status is plain phoney. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bogotá Street Art

An album of arresting street art from the Colombian capital...

Street Art Bogotá

Mercado de Bazurto

Some pics taken on a recent wander around Cartagena's Mercado de Bazurto...

Mercado de Bazurto

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The C Word

The free market economy is the only economic system that has ever delivered prosperity to the masses. This is simply historical fact. To deny it is like denying evolution or the holocaust.

In much the same way I would tend to avoid holding a philosophical discussion with committed creationists, it is also pretty tiresome to debate politics or economics with people who won't start by acknowledging the implications of this basic premise.

Just take at GDP per capita in Western Europe in the 1000 years before 1700 and then in the roughly 300 years since. Prior to the industrial revolution the majority were living on the equivalent of $2 a day or less i.e. in extreme poverty. And there was no aid coming in from abroad.

I suppose we can tussle over the present day case of China, but the fact is that within the context of a single party state and the deeper culture, the Chinese Communist Party has liberalised its economy just enough to drag millions out of long-term poverty in a comparatively short space of time. 

Nevertheless, there are people out there  be they at the summit of the Catholic church or the UK Labour party  who more than occasionally use the term Capitalism as if it were wholly synonymous with the system of divided labour and free market exchange as described by Adam Smith.

And as the C word has obviously negative connotations in many quarters, this subterfuge of political vocabulary has enabled countless ideologues to unleash the inverse proposition that free market economics inherently create poverty, and not just sometimes, but always.

This is nothing less than a modern dressing up of the old Marxist fallacy that wealth creation is essentially a euphemism for poverty creation. 

Many still show a degree of intellectual caution by prefixing capitalism with 'unfettered', but post-2008 others have become more emboldened. 
(And when they plead that it's not all of capitalism, just the bad bits, it's a bit like listening to Trump attest that he didn't mean ALL Mexicans, when you sort of have to know that he did.)

Of course there are many aspects of modern capitalism that appear to reverse the historical thrust towards more equitable prosperity. Some of these may be under political control, others might not be. A good few may be more cultural or even geographical.

These structural problems within the unevenly globalised system present some of the most serious challenges we face in this century, but they do not represent any sort of justification for a full system reboot based on illiberal economic principles which have time and again been shown to fail, and yes, create poverty. 

In other words, if the game is rigged, it is our collective duty to attempt to un-rig it, not dig an old abandoned game out of the cupboard and brush the dust off it.

But the notion that it is liberal economic systems that create poverty per se persists, along with the parallel absurdity that free market is inherently a zero sum game. 

Many of those who espouse it have benefitted their entire lives from the material conditions and education that liberal systems provide, and yet still appear to peddle a discourse that appears to favour North Korea lite over any version of South Korea.

Here in Latin America generations of unscrupulous politicians and intellectuals have almost certainly denied the masses the prospect of real prosperity by turning them against the free market with the old chestnut about how they would be fabulously rich if they hadn't been robbed, first by the Portuguese and Spanish and then by the Gringos.

Hogwash of course  and it would be almost impossible to build a credible academic case for such a position using a balanced selection of historical sources.

Yet it is by transcending this rather callow sense of historical grievance that many other nations in the developing world, particularly in Asia, have adapted liberal economic principles to their own requirements and duly prospered.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

The extremist bent...

Extremists always end up more in conflict with moderates on their own side than their fellow extremists on the other side. You see this with terror groups, guerrilla movements, even Corbynites in the British Labour party today.

Extremists’ goals fall into two categories. The essentially unachievable (the larger of the two) and the might-be-achievable-with-a-bit-of-compromise sort.

Moderates are habitually blamed for the non-achievement of the non-achievable goals, but the real source of conflict comes from extremist fear that moderates might actually be capable of achieving some of their more achievable goals.

So all forms of compromise are thoroughly stigmatised and in some cases extremists work hard to derail initiatives that might deliver some of the results they have claimed to hanker after.

In Spain for example, ETA intensified their terror campaign once non-violent nationalists had started working with the central socialist government to grant significant autonomy to the Basque region.

When Corbynites refer to neoliberalism, one might be forgiven for thinking they are referring to a a virulent strain of liberalism which has taken hold at the opposite end of the political spectrum, but in fact they are referring to all forms of classical liberalism, especially those that occupy the moderate zone of said spectrum.

Their intention is to vilify all forms of private initiative and indeed the very notion that social and economic progress can be trusted to anyone but politicians of their own ilk.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


A couple more thoughts on the ultimately fairly dreadful Ixcanul

This was the second film we've watched in a week which featured the on-screen slitting of an animal's throat. It's something I'd always struggle to approve of, but under some circumstances I can see how an actual death can be shot in such a way that the director doesn't seem to be seeking a short-cut to authenticity. 

If Ixcanul had featured a cast of non-professional actors, full-on hillbilly indigenes of the type represented in the movie, then it might perhaps have 'earned' that scene, but instead, given the mood of inauthenticity that was already taking hold, it further soured my relationship with the narrative. 

But the most glaring failure of this film was in the way it handled stereotypes. There are two rather obviously wrong ways to do this. A) pepper your story with a set of some of the most simplistic, non-nuanced, non-ironic versions of the prevalent ones. Or B) pepper it with clusmy inversions of the latter, which ultimately has broadly the same effect. In this way subverting stereotypes can end up reinforcing them. But Ixcanul just stuck to plan A. 

As an Englishman I could make a film about French people in which all the men were pseudo intellectuals who are deluded about their prowess in the bedroom and generally don't bathe a lot. There are ways I could get away with this. It could be done by way of comedy or perhaps it might be achieved by making it clear to the audience that I understand that I am poking fun at a minority, and even at my own xenophobic attitudes along the way. But Ixacanul's representation of Mayan stereotypes ended up being about as subtle as Jimmy Morales's Negrito Pitaya. (Viz the scene where Maria appears to be trying to get it on with a tree.) 

Similarly if I took off to Louisiana to make a movie about the African American underclass there and all of my characters were crudely-drawn stereotypes, questions would surely be asked. It wouldn’t make much of a difference if my honest intention had been to draw attention to social issues, if right wing white people could use the material to feed their prejudices without any kind of cognitive dissonance. If an outsider portrays a minority within a minority as if it were the majority, then he or she is doing that minority a massive disservice. 

How could anyone unfamiliar with this country not be inclined to conclude that the lifestyles and mentalites of the protagonists of Ixacanul are broadly universal within the country's Mayan community? 

The scene where El Pepe explains to Maria why he wants to go to the USA could have formed part of a Trump campaign infomercial, entitled 'They don't send us their best people!' 

It matters little that the film's intended target audience can be assumed to be Democrats, because that scene would work in an equally if not more powerful way for those of a wide-eyed Republican bent as well.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Guatemala: The Ground Rules (4)

Here 'lights are on but nobody's home' all too easily becomes 'lights are off but everybody's home'. 


What an absurd little film this is. Just suppose someone had decided to make a movie about a comparatively underdeveloped subculture within north american society,  say a tale of African American life in Louisiana directed by a non African American, which pandered to every available stereotype. It would be booed at every screening rather than held up as a darling of the festival circuit or indeed submitted as Oscar bait. 

On so many levels Ixcanul is a classic example of the Indie film gaze, a jāgerbomb of otherness for a certain type of first world audience. 

This is Guatemala as inframundo. Rampaging poisonous snakes, unadulterated unmodernity, people talking about cars as if they’ve never seen one, no TV, no cellphones, no Internet, no real knowledge of the world outsude this artificially represented bubble. The young men are drunken wasters, the young girls are cójelonas, their elders helpless and ignorant within Ladino society. 

This is no showcase of Mayan culture; it is a snow-globed version of it that sits somewhere between patronising and offensive. I can just imagine the conversation I’d have been forced to have with my mother if she had seen that film or even a trailer. 

And so much of all this is so transparently phoney. 

One can start with the phoney remoteness. How many Cakchiquel speakers living along the Intermericana corridor actually exist like this? Certainly not the two female leads who hail from Santa Maria de Jesús,  and yet have been paraded around European film festivals like exotic specimens in much the same way that returning conquistadors used to parade the indios they'd picked up on the other side of the Atlantic. 

But this is par for the course for serious films about Guatemala. We are back in the world of El Norte, except that 30 years haven't passed and there's no sense of humour on display. 

One can recall that even the blurb for Looking for Palladin (which has sunk without trace) begins ‘in a remote place...’. 

The scenario here might better have been handled as a fly-on-the-wall mocumentary, because creatively little was done to present us with believable fictional characters with a truthful individuality of their own. I wanted to see behind the overblown otherness and the stock situations, but there was never much of an opening. 

Guatemalan cinema will have come of age when it doesn’t feel the need to dress itself up in this sort of outlandish garb to gain international recognition. 

It’s the old McOndo posing as Macondo trope: e.g. López Bruni posing as a Mayan sacerdote whilst performing bizarre pagan rituals for the benefit of Stephen Fry’s camera crew and then taking them out for a night of partying and rock music in Antigua off camera. The latter would have made more entertaining, more truthful television. 

Thursday, September 01, 2016

17th Century Corruption

Such is the habitually moralistic tone of post-2008 social and political commentary that it is now basically taken for granted that behavious that are ethically dubious for individuals are also collectively wrong. And crucially, that even when beneficial to unscrupulous individuals, they are inevitably deleterious to society as a whole.

In Latin America we see these notions driving the various anti-corruption movements. Latin Americans look around and conclude that corruption is largely responsible for their relative lack of development compared to say the US or the UK.

Yet just the other day I came across this reference in Samuel Pepys's diary to some advice his patron Lord Montagu had given him as he began his new post in government.

"In general speaking that it was not the salary of any place that did make a man rich, but the opportunity of getting money while he is in the place".

The London of 1660 was the world's largest and fastest-growing commercial centre. Yet this kind of attitude to graft was highly prevalent and could hardly be said to be seriously shackling the developmental potential of seventeenth century British society.