Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pavlovian Politics

I am white.
I am American.
I am from New York.
I am from the upper middle class. (Let's be honest).

Given these circumstances, I realized recently that I have certain uncontrollable associations built into my psyche that I believe are a product of my environment and took root during my "developing" years. There are things that are so ingrained in me, that I don't question them nor do I know their exact derivations.

Here are a few examples:
Socialism = Communism
Communism = Bad
Russia = Bad
Socialism = Bad
Israel-Palestine = "It's too complicated to understand"
Hezbollah = Terrorists (ohhh... that needs some 'splaining!)
Republicans = Wrong (despite the fact that both of my parents are of the Republican-ish leaning)
Religion and Politics = Personal info

I've got a funny way of illustrating my admittedly vague point: I played a lot of video games as a kid. In one of the games, the developers, for whatever reason, occasionally put posters of Karl Marx in the game environment. It had nothing to do with the game itself and was probably a gag or inside joke. But, while playing the game, I would shoot the posters of Marx at any given opportunity. At that time, I couldn't identify Marx by face. I had no idea what "Marxism" meant and I didn't know who was depicted in those posters. But I knew that those posters had something to do with Russia (eh, sorta right), that he had a big white beard, and I knew that he was "bad" -- so I shot Marx between the eyes at every opportunity.
[Note: Before you ask, the game was Goldeneye, and the posters were on the "Library" level, I think.]
Now, why? Why did I shoot pictures of Karl Marx, a philosopher? Because something inside me, something innate, something primal, told me that he was the "enemy". I knew it. I didn't know who he was or what his ideas were, but I "knew" that they were wrong.

I think this problem exists in most adults today.

Let's take a really extreme example that I am not qualified to be writing about, but it made me raise my eyebrows: Hezbollah. Immediate response = Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

But what do I know? Are they?
The answer is, well, not what I expected. Without getting into the history too much (maybe this will inspire you to do that research on your own and come up with your own conclusions), I can say that Hezbollah started in 1982 in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. From 1985-1992, they fought the Israelis a lot and killed a lot of Israelis and the Israelis killed a lot of them. In 1992, they entered the Lebanese elections. They admitted that eventually, sure, they want an Islamic state, but that can only come through the electoral process (!). Their support comes mostly from the Shiites in the south who use the Hezbollah financed hospitals and other social services (!). They still fight the Israelis a lot.

Islamic fundamentalists? Well, not the kind that I picture when the words "Islamic fundamentalist" appear. Do they use suicide bombs? Nope. They are politicians and an anti-Israeli militia, basically. Are they terrorists? Man, you better know exactly what you are talking about before you start throwing around that word. Again, I feel like most people would never challenge their base assumption and would rather throw themselves into fits of patriotic frenzy instead of analysing the facts. (I'm not qualified to give an ultimate answer on this question). Doing research requires thought and patience, both of which are in low supply today.

My point has nothing to do with Hezbollah. It's just this: challenge your basic assumptions. Acknowledge them, question them, educate yourself, then reconsider.

The Key to Keynes

Quick thought: Is there a "critical mass" for capitalism, ie. will there always be a loser?
Is there a maximum amount of capital out there in the world that, by the very nature that it is limited, prevent some ("third world", the "South", or "undeveloped" countries) from ever achieving economic parity with the "developed" world?

During my reading for my humanitarian aid class, it struck me that the base assumption of development aid policy is that the Western industrialized countries can "develop" the undeveloped countries to a point of self-sufficiency. Does our market capital system have room for that? Can there be no "bottom", or -- to put it harsher -- "losers"? Can everybody win?

I think the simple answer is "no". But the more complicated and ethical answer is that the "bottom" can come up only if the "top" comes down a little bit, and we would all occupy various strata of the "middle".

A collegue of mine countered that instead of meeting in the middle, basically the entire strata of rich to poor would be shifted upwards. So, the bottom comes up, but the top also goes up.
That doesn't make sense to me. That means that more "Stuff" (capital, money, resources, etc.) must exist, because more of it is going to the bottom and more of it is going to the top. Can that happen?

(I'm sure Econ 101 could have answered this for me. Damned Organic Chemistry got in the way in college.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Name Tags: Legit or Shit?

I have a problem with name tags. Instinctively, I trust them. More specifically, I trust those who wear them. Proudly hanging about the neck, fastened to an engraved cloth lanyard or sometimes encased in thick plastic, name tags bring the wearer a sense of confidence and to the casual observer, they impart a moral correctness. Without investigating the details, a simple glance at this innocent rectangular identification tablet comforts me. It says, "Hey, I'm here to help."

Or do they? Mark my words: Beware of those who wear name tags. Name tags don't mean a goddamn thing. They are useful pieces of deception, and most importantly, rarely recognized as so.

My first realization that a name-tagged person is not always a qualified, certified, and moralized person occurred while I was in Morocco. Actually, it happened when I was leaving Morocco:

Having arrived from Fez at the Tangiers train station much later than expected, I had approximately 10 minutes to get from the train station to the port and to the soon-to-depart ferry that would take me to Spain.
Dashing out the station doors, duffel bag awkwardly in tow and hat on head, I run across the front car park and take the first petit-taxi I come across on the main road. The driver is literally beckoning me, waving me on into his car, like I'm some kind of marathon runner. Mistake. I jump in the back door, sweating and short of breath. Mistake. This guy knows that he's got me by the balls. I'm fucked before he even opened his mouth. We start negotiating the price (a necessity in the Islamic world), but I'm in a hurry and I don't have time to negotiate. I need to get going. The driver, obviously, knows this. Fucking Stevie Wonder would know this. He's got me by the balls.
"Just go!" I shout, in a restrained manner. (I think I said "vamos!", trying to hide the fact that I was American [many people speak Spanish in Tangiers], because, as an American, I apparently have money. Not willing to disappoint the driver with the fact that I was broke, I tried to hide my nationality anyway)
"No, no." my smiling antagonist oozed. He wanted to talk prices.
"Five euros!" I stupidly shout. That's about 10-15 times the actual price and maybe a half day's wages for him.

Needless to say, we leave.

Driving down the main road, I'm sitting in the back seat, bag across my lap, checking my watch constantly. I just need this guy to stop somewhere close to the port and then I'll hop out and run the rest of the way. I'm fucked. I'm late. Come on. The boat is about to leave and I will be stuck in fucking Tangiers-- and the sun is about to set. The driver stops at the front gate and I quickly throw him a five euro note. He has the cajones, the fucking gall, the goddamn audacity to ask, innocently, "Tip?"
I sneer. "You're kidding me" or something in that rude sort of vain and hop out.
I take off running towards the boat.

Running up a long ramp that leads to the customs house, I know that I am seconds away from missing this boat. I dash through the front door, looking for the next checkpoint or visa station. Anything. Just get me on that boat. A man comes running up to me and seizes my left arm, "Hurry! Hurry! Boat leaves soon!" We rush to the right a short distance and to the customs window. Awesome. He asks me for my passport. I look, and see he is wearing a name tag.


Why did I trust this guy? Not even that. Why, without thinking, without blinking, did I hand this random fucking guy my passport?
Because he was wearing a name tag.


I give this guy my passport and he starts filling out a piece of paper he has next to him-- quite illegibly and in haste. I stand there, anxiously, looking at the customs window. Imagine it: Me- standing, waiting, looking. Dude- scribbling, smiling, referencing my passport. It dawned on me. This fucker doesn't work for customs. He's scamming me. And, he has my passport.

"Stop!" I shout, a little too loudly.
He doesn't let go of my passport-- so I grab it.
We are both holding on to my passport, pulling it in opposite directions, tug of war style. He is smiling. I am fucking furious.
"Fuck off" I hiss as I wrench it from his hands.
"Tip?" he smiles, like a weasel.
As the sweat drips down my cheek, I whisper an obscenity. I stomp over to the customs official who, behind his bullet proof glass, is grinning a little too much. He's seen this before.
I get my passport stamped, curse the Moroccan government, sprint, and make it to the ramp of the boat (with the crewmen shouting at me to hurry up), just in time. I get on board, sit, and start writing about what just happened.

Lesson: Don't trust people with name tags.

ps. Also, don't trust street protesters with name tags who try to get your money or get your email address. Who the hell are they? What are they trying to prove with their name tags and t-shirts? Legitimacy? No. No soup for you. I can print up a name tags, scrawl a catchy and rebellious organization name across the top, and do the same thing.
Fool me once...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Pardon Me, But I'm Coming

What a gem of a video. This is Sam and Dave, rocking out their hit "Hold On I'm Coming". Besides a funky ass break down mid way through the tune, check out the backing band. Look familiar, all you Rock historians out there?

That's right. Booker T and the MGs. Steve Cropper and Co. are just rocking out the place and I can't get enough of it.

If, like me, you can't get enough great 60s R&B, and once you start you can't stop, here are a few more videos to hold you over:

"Shotgun"-- Jr Walker and the All Stars

"Ain't Too Proud to Beg"-- The Temptations

"In the Midnight Hour"-- Wilson Pickett

"Rescue Me"-- Fontella Bass

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cream de la Cream

I used shaving cream for the first time in about 6 months today.

While in London, I have picked up the curious habit of refusing to use shaving cream. I am not sure why. It must have been that I went into the bathroom one day, fully intending on using my Barbasol Beard Busting Cream, when, alas, there was none. I probably stared, forlorn, into the empty space in my cabinet that was usually occupied by said BBBC for a couple of moments. The inevitable awaited: I had a decision to make. To shave, or not to shave.

Given societal standards of conduct- I shaved, with only a bit of water dabbed onto my neck. (Did I mention, I only needed to shave my neck? I don't shave my face. Ever. I rock the stubble.)

Ever since then, I have never used shaving cream. I simply soak my neck in hot water, grab a razor and have at it. At first, I'll admit, it was difficult. My skin would get beet red and occasionally bleed. But, like a Kung Fu monk's fists, after repeated abuse I have finally made myself strong. Now I can drag those twin shards of precision cut steel across the most sensitive of skin (that area where my chin’s horizontal underside meets my vertical neck, in the vicinity of my Adam’s apple) and walk away smiling. I’m not smiling because I look good. I’m smiling because I did it.

The intelligent thing to do would be to just buy some more shaving cream. It’s cheap, effective, and the most manly of cosmetics. But, I think the reason I don’t use it is, well, truthfully, I want to be ready--

Ready, if I ever have to go back to ‘Nam.

(Cue “Time of the Seasons”- The Zombies)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Equality Undermines Religious Freedom

It seems so easy nowadays to criticize the Pope and the Catholic Church, but when Benny 16 lobs you an underhand floater like this one, you can't resist knocking it out of the park.

This quote is brilliant:
“In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate,” he said. “It is the truth revealed through scripture and tradition and articulated by the Church’s Magisterium that sets us free.”

I gotta tell you, [insert dictator's name] couldn't have said it any better. I mean, who are we to argue-- sorry, dissent from-- the Truth?! Who are we to acknowledge equality in society when such a thing is expressly forbidden by the Church? After all, it was revealed through scripture (that nobody knows who wrote or when it was written), and through tradition- which as Woody Allen quipped "is the illusion of permanence".

Your bigotry is astounding, Pope. Shame on you. Shame on you.

Decreeing those who disagree with your divine diktats as "dissenters" is dirty and downright dangerous. I'm sure the Iranian public would agree with me.
It seems you and Ayatollah Khamenei have at least one thing in common.