Friday, May 14, 2021

Ideals, partially-applied

Bella Hadid and Gal Gadot both made the calculated choice/error of commenting on the Israel-Gaza conflict this week. 

Both of course can be said to have some sort of actual personal stake in it, unlike the hordes of zealous, armchair Middle East comentaristas who immediately and all very predictably pounced. 

Yet both were in a sense asking to be trolled for the biases they betrayed in their language. (Hang on...I am not really uggesting anyone actually asks to be trolled!) 

Hadid characterised Israel as a non-country packed with colonial oppressors. That's a bit like me observing that the British Museum is an imperialist storeroom full of looted objects. Sure, some folk would probably jump to agree with me, but most reasonable people would undoubtedly appreciate how partial a description that is. 

Another way of looking at the British Museum — doors opened in 1759 — is as one of the blue ribbon achievements of the Enlightenment in Britain: a temple to the light that knowledge and investigation can shine in the darkness. 

These ideals could be said to weakly-felt at best throughout the Middle East today. Even the keenest detractors of Israel (an actual modern democracy), many of whom vocally support issues like Trans and LGBTQ+ rights, would have to admit that their own liberal worldview is generally not highly regarded in most parts of that neighbourhood. 

Though it has something of a toe-hold in one small part at least, with the effect that certain, once-marginalised lifestyles are at least possible there. 

However, the thinkers of the Enlightenment — whose ideals can be said to have led inexorably to the modern notion of tolerance, and then onto the celebration of human diversity— also stood against false ideas, the dominance of religion, oppression and cruelty. 

And, Israelis please note — and not just Israelis — they also stood for human sympathy...for justice, freedom and the possibility of personal fulfilment in this life rather than the next. 

If the one place in that part of the world where reason is genuinely valued on some significant levels is being seen to behave un-reasonably, then it's a really bad look as far as our overall global discourse goes. 

Enlightened ideals are a form of prejudice. They have the potential for fostering human wellbeing, yet from the start they also had in-built defects, and these can metastasize quickly. 

There has never been a moment in human history when so-called progress arrives on the scene shorn of any potential for deleterious side effects.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Current State of Guatemala's Economy

The national economy has remained perhaps surprisingly robust through the covid pandemic.

GDP contracted by 1.5% in 2020, the second smallest contraction in the Americas after Paraguay, and is expected to rebound by 3.9% in 2021. 

Exports and remittance growth have been key here. (The current account surplus increased to 5.5% of GDP in 2020, from 2.3% in 2019.) 

Average inflation in the first quarter of 2021 was 5.7%, a little over the central bank's target, but this has been fed by higher energy prices, which are expected to be short-lived. (Though inflation has taken a bit of lurch forward recently elsewhere too, e.g. up in the US.) 

The fiscal deficit expanded to 4.9% of GDP in 2020, as government expenditure increased by 17.2% while revenue fell by 3.8%.

The situation may be complicated by the failure to agree a budget for 2021 (and a falling back on the previous year's budget) with the result that government spending is now capped around 94.3bn quetzales and the previously agreed loans ($20m from the World Bank and $594m from the IMF) are no longer on the table, in congressionally-approved form that is. 

Yet this appears not to imminently threaten the government's ability to finance the deficit in 2021. International reserves reached $18.5 billion (23.8% of GDP) at the end of last year, equivalent to 10 months of the current external payments.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (1)

During my fresher year at Girton I was approached one evening in the Stanley Library by a super-sophisticated and sybaritic young lady of Hispanic origin, mature and materially well-appointed way beyond the level of just about everyone else in the intake, and frankly, a little terrifying. 

She spotted the book in my hand and duly cautioned me about pursuing my study of Schopenhauer. It tends to lead to suicide, she noted with a knowing smile. 

Back then and ever since, I've read Schopenhauer for laughs. 

Kierkegaard observed that "the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic" and there is really no reason for this not to also apply to the suffering deriving from morbid self-pity. 

There's a moment when Florent-Claude — the narrator in Serotonin — shortly after doing what many fans of classic British comedy would recognise as a 'Reggie Perrin', turns up at a doctor's surgery and explains his new situation: 

When I had finished summing up my recent life to him, he agreed, in fact, that I genuinely needed a course of treatment, and asked me if I had had thoughts of suicide. No, I replied, death doesn’t interest me.

We Brits seem to find embittered middle-aged men more entertaining than most: Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge, Alf Garnett, Mr Bean and so on. I guess this is why I find Rod Liddle's column in The Spectator such a guilty pleasure. 

I suppose that if Liddle were to take to the fictional form and become our most famous living novelist on the international stage, he'd be a near enough equivalent of Michel Houellebecq, minus all the stuff about gang bangs and blow jobs, one presumes. 

So here we are in the doldrums of 2020/21, and one keeps coming across recommendations for 'feel good' books to put the wind back in our sails. Yet there remains much to be said for the — perhaps counter-intuitively — uplifting effect of the sort of rancid, misanthropic rant that habitually forms the backbone of this particularly cantankerous Frenchman's novels. 

One might say that Houellebecq is a conservative with a capital D for doomed. Rather than hankering after the past (which for him means the 70s, and is thus horrid), he seems to live in an imagined near future that turns out to be disconcertingly prescient as he moves from novel to novel, each a kind of update on the ones that came before and each also more of a routine than a fictional narrative per se. 

One always finds oneself having to wade through clumps of mean-spirited and banal generalisations (often about women), before one comes across one of those surprisingly lucid and occasionally even soulful observations Houellebecq can suddenly serve up.   

When first published even the French author's detractors admitted grudgingly that in Serotonin he might have yet again demonstrated a form of foreknowledge, as the later, Normandy-based section of the novel is said to have anticipated France's gilets jaunes movement of 2018.

Earlier on he seems to be anti-EU and anti-anglais at the same time, with his spikiest barbs landing on the Dutch...

You’re never well received by the English – they are almost as racist as the Japanese, like a lite version of them), but also from the Dutch, who obviously didn’t reject me out of xenophobia (how could a Dutch person be xenophobic? That’s an oxymoron: right there: Holland isn’t a country, it’s a business at best).

Right now in 2021 the uncanny contemporary relevance of this book seems to be further suggested by its title, for this is a secretion that is vital to our sense of well-being, yet also linked to the self-esteem we derive from our group interactions. 

What then happens when we deny ourselves these activities, or are denied them by our government? 

Anyway, I am some way from the end of the novel and so will probably discover some reasons to return here with additional reflections on it later on...

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Jews Don't Count by David Baddiel


Rather like Promising Young Woman, if you immediately conclude that this is probably not for you, it almost certainly is. 

Particularly if you are the kind of 'progressive' inclined to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a person of colour yet at the same time disinclined to award the same status to any other member of his ethnic group. 
"The move to reclassify Jesus as non-white is good and historically accurate. The erasure at the same time of his Jewishness is neither."
I came to this thinking I had probably already had a basic understanding of the problem Baddiel is trying to throw some light on, but even so, this is a well-written, intelligently-presented polemic of serious quality and undoubtedly shocking in many places. 

How, he seems to be asking overall, does probably the most oppressed and persecuted ME in history find itself denied access to some fairly basic BAME protections today, and not just so-called micro-aggressions, but some really quite serious macro-aggressions too. 

He points to a key determinant: "The law of Schrödinger’s Whites, a brilliant conceit that I am not responsible for, in which Jews are white or non-white depending on the politics of the observer."

White supremacists are generally pretty clear on this. Jews are not white folk, rather they are 'Asiatic' types, secretly working behind the scenes with other dark races to replace them. 

Yet for many on the left, Jews are not only white, but in a sense more than white, a skin colour that manifests itself as kind of grey in a cultural sense or perhaps even invisible to the naked eye. 

Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G (Baddiel regards him as more 'Israeli' than Jewish, apparently for his occasionally overbearing self-confidence) played on this when he asked an interviewee 'Is it because I is black?'. 

Cultural whiteness is not so much about skin colour, as about belonging to the group which doesn't have to worry too much about such things. And Jews have historically never been free not to worry. 

In one of his gentler turns Baddiel summarises the problem for Jews in a woke society...
The problem is that Jews occupy a socio-cultural grey area. Jews, although marginal, are not thought of as marginalised. Which means Jews can’t be seen as representative of a modern Britain that is intent on shifting marginalised experiences into the mainstream.
In its extreme form contemporary anti-semitic prejudice is grounded in the notion that Jews cannot be oppressed as they are secretly controlling the levers of oppression, specifically capitalist oppression. 

As Baddiel puts it: "Interestingly, a lot of those who believe in Lizard People also seem to be anti-Semites", whilst noting that the likes of David Icke use Rothschild Zionists as their preferred euphemism for Jews. 

There's a double standard at play here which is decidedly difficult to counter...
Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped, by the racists, in all the same ways that other minorities are – as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world. Jews are somehow both sub-human and humanity’s secret masters.
Again, Baddiel doesn't go into the history of this, but the association of Jews with money has its origins in medieval mentalités: Christians then, just like Muslims today, found themselves hog-tied by dogma when it came to matters of credit and interest. So they farmed the job out to a minority that they could then despise for it, in what can only be described as a thoroughly despicable manner. 

The underlying racist prejudice somehow solidified as Christians gradually allowed themselves a more hands-on role in the expansion of capitalism. 

The actor John Cusack once tweeted a noxious anti-semitic meme with the added imperative 'Follow the Money'. Yet in the USA if you do decide to embark upon that particular trail towards monied minorities, it is Hindus not Jews that you will find in greatest abundance: both the most remunerated and high net worthy of American sub-identities. Meanwhile more than half of the millionaires on a global level are Christian. 

And even then, Baddiel feels impelled to add...
This is very un-Marxist of me – fuck off about money. Because money doesn’t protect you from racism. As I say, some Jews are rich. My grandparents were: they were industrialists in East Prussia. They owned a brick factory. They had servants. By the time they were fleeing to England with my mother as a baby in 1939, however, that had all been robbed from them. And by the end of the war, most of their family – and therefore a large section of mine – had been murdered. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, because the racists will smash in the door of your big house that they know you don’t deserve anyway and only own because you’re Jews.
There's a lucid chapter on the way Israel is used by many on the left to silence any Jewish misgivings about the way their opinions tend to fare in British political discourse, and he pinpoints the way Godwin's Law is being used to slap down any Jew who might dare to mention ze vor. And this when there's really nobody else more inherently entitled to bring the Nazis into an argument. 

Baddiel highlights another telling omission that I spotted and was duly irked by recently in Jojo Rabbit...
Jews remains the only minority – and now we’re talking beyond ethnic, to include disabled, trans, autistic and many other categories – where you don’t have to cast the actor in line with the real thing. 
Later on he seems to be gently mocking former ITV sports presenter Jim Rosenthal and his son Tom for somewhat aggressively asserting their non-Jewishness. This did make me chuckle, because Marcus in Plebs is one of the most thoroughly Jewish characters in contemporary British comedy. 

On a separate note, it once bothered V that Jim Rosenthal always used to appear on ITV's Formula One show with his top button done up and eventually went so far as to dispatch an email to the channel about this rather pressing matter. 

Shortly afterwards, he stopped doing it. Nowadays if you google him, there's only one image returned that suggests this was ever a thing.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Voyagers (2021)

Lord of the Flies Lite, in space...with added girls. 

That would have been the elevator pitch I suppose. In a way it is also a less chin-scratchy version of High Life from Claire Denis, and on that level at least, contrastingly more entertaining. 

Both films utterly fail to convince the viewer that the action is actually taking place in deep space or provide any clues to the internal layout of their respective vessels. 

Here we get a lot of 70s Doctor Who-style running around in rather bland spaceship corridors. It's not just the setting (and production design) that are a bit flimsy, but the entire premise comes pre-perforated. 

And yet, as I said, it is kind of fun, not least as an introduction to a subset of the young stars of tomorrow, including the daughter of Vanessa Paradis, Lily-Rose Depp, plus there is fine turn from Fionn Whitehead as bad apple-in-chief. 

It's been compared to a GAP advert (there are more prime colours in the poster than ever we see on board), but overall this is no advertisement for genetic engineering. 

Sunday, May 02, 2021


There’s a story circulating today in which it is alleged that Guatemala does not appear on the official Russian register of countries it is assisting via distribution of Sputnik V and that a substantial amount of the monies apparently paid for that vaccine by the government here were transferred to a broker with a Russian name who is now not answering his calls. 

Instinct and experience tell me that this story is almost too juicy to be true. 

Yet they also tell me that this individual need not be Russian at all, and could well be in the employ of another state actor — of the sort that might have a vested interest in undermining Putin’s vaccine diplomacy in the region and might also not mind at all if the population of Guatemala were to remain un-protected in a manner that would make migration policy decisions politically more easy to enforce in the medium term. That's how I'd write it up as an espionage thriller anyway. 

In the same way there were those taking advantage of 9-11 or Brexit for reasons that had little much to do with the prevailing terror threat the UK’s relationship with the EU, there will be those with plans already in place to leverage the pandemic for purely political ends. 

In the UK for example, such people will know well that ‘protect the NHS’ is a mantra that will achieve a broad mandate for state action that might otherwise not appeal to the majority.

Things Heard & Seen (2021)

There's way too much sub-plot and sub-character in this story for a genre movie. 

The adaptors of the book by Shari Springer Berman (possibly including the novelist herself) had to be more ruthless — and then the producers needed to understand that the problem could not be solved just by hiring more familiar actors and extending the running time. It's a classic Netflix error really. 

This movie wants to be more than just a run-of-the-mill genre flick, but it just doesn't have the space to explore some of the metaphysical and artistic themes that are tossed in, nor do we ever really learn the relevance of one character's eating disorder etc. 

I have a more general issue with the use of coincidence in fictional narratives. It works well enough for example in works like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (the note under the door), but less well in supposedly taut thrillers. 

Here we are led into the last act by a close-linked sequence of three major coincidences: the first at a museum, followed by another at a dock and then a final example in a car park. 

The phenomenon of the supernatural horror flick that builds slowly, with considerable promise, only to nose-dive into disappointing nonsense in the last act is familiar and unfortunately this is a textbook case. 

Saturday, May 01, 2021

My Octopus Teacher (2020)

Well, this was about the most existentially disturbing thing I've sat through in a long time.

I guess the question must be: how intentional was this? 

And then: Did it win the Oscar last Sunday for its hidden payload of metaphysical angst? 

Oh, and finally: What happens to male octopuses?

The title announces the didactic mood. Perhaps it ought to have been Your Octopus Teacher. 

There's a story here which acts as a payload for the environmental message. We meet Craig, a white South African in mid-life crisis, which is partly resolved via a partly-requited love affair with a female octopus living in a kelp forest den just beyond the southern tip of Africa. 

Craig's narrative is deeply moving even as it is superficially rather depthless, and occasionally drifts towards the ridiculous. It’s relationship to the underwater footage at times feels staged. 

The message on the surface is that contact with this sort of playful, yet short-lived alien consciousness distinguished by its tactile curiosity can make the younger generation recognise that they are a part of nature even if at the same time it whispers to old timers that they might wonder why they still want to be. 

Human consciousness is like a containment system (or user interface) for our vast nervous system. Are octopuses almost like autistic savants with a far less pinpoint awareness than your average human? I need to know more. 

I was left with an uneasy sensation for days after viewing this. It's now passing, yet I have resolved to read this now...