"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 31, 2013

The American Brand And How It Is Irresistible

David Brooks has written in the New York Times (5.31.13) about the allure and power of American product brands.  No one can name any Chinese brands, he notes, but iconic images of Nike, Apple, McDonalds, and a hundred more American products are immediately recognizable and remembered around the world. Our ability to create such powerful brands is rooted in American capitalism – a blend of personal ambitions and visions, a strong countercultural tradition out of which commercial trends emerge, and a highly competitive consumer marketplace in which buyers are always looking for the next new thing.

The Chinese, on the other hand, have no similar models. 

Brand managers who’ve worked in China say their executives tend to see business deals in transactional, not in relationship terms. As you’d expect in a country that has recently emerged from poverty, where competition is fierce, where margins are thin, where corruption is prevalent and trust is low, the executives there are more likely to take a short-term view of their exchanges.

Another reason not mentioned by Brooks may be the retail export market itself. According to Trading Economics China’s major exports are: electromechanical products (57 percent of total exports) and labor-intensive products like clothing, textiles, footwear, furniture, plastic products, bags and toys (20 percent).  It is hard to recall a Chinese brand of clothing, for example, because the country simply produces the shirts and pants which are then finished and marketed by Gap and other well-known American companies.  Similarly toys produced in China then go on the shelves of Kids R Us under the Mattel brand.

China has tried to develop a brand-centered retail export market for years, but it has not succeeded.  It is not hard to see that these labor-intensive industries are critical for the employment of China’s millions of workers and that brand corporations are wealth-producing but for shareholders, not employees. Of course with China’s still untapped resources of talent, enterprise, and ambition, the country could easily reconfigure at least a part of its economy to create a great new brand of international renown, but give the persistence of central planning and a continually robust economy, it is unlikely to divert its attention away from the current labor-intensive model.

Even if China decides to go the way of the big brand, it will not only be competing with individual American brands, but the American brand itself.  America is still the land of dreams and fantasy for much of the world.  Although Old Europe eschews American commercialism and pop culture, millions in Asia and Africa see the United States as Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York all rolled into one.  French think films are seen by a very few, and France is perennially pumping money into cinema that no one except a few Left Bank intellectuals care about.  It is the big blockbusters and their stars which draw the crowds.  Who can compete with the works of just one director like James Cameron whose Avatar, Alien, Gladiator and others combine Hollywood myth with technology pizazz and star power?

All America is like its films, think the hundreds of millions who would like to come here - a happy conflation of our diverse and exciting popular culture.  In this vision ordinary Americans are not much different from the heroic adventurers of the screen.  Sexy women and handsome men are all over California, chiseled cowboys throughout the West, greedy but alluring New York capitalists live in Park Avenue luxury, have three yachts, ski in Gstaad, and squire a different lady every night.  It is the magical power of American branding and marketing that the world thinks we all are like this. The Apple brand and the 3D interactive, highly visual software in Avatar become one and the same.  Big, powerful SUVs – Suburbans, Yukons, and Expeditions – are on our roads, in the movies, and in the minds of the African or Asian viewer the very symbol of American muscularity and power.  We can’t lose.  The American brand provides the institutional umbrella under which all individual brands are formed and exist.

Brooks comments that a very productive source of new retail ideas comes from current counterculture.  Fads, fashions, and trends have come at one time or another from hippies, the ghetto, San Francisco hipsters, Seattle grunge, and the Mafia.  But what if we run out of ideas?

The biggest threat to the creativity of American retail may be that we may have run out of countercultures to co-opt. We may have run out of anti-capitalist ethoses to give products a patina of cool. We may be raising a generation with few qualms about commerce, and this could make them less commercially creative.

I doubt it.  We are endlessly inventive and creative.  It is not only the counterculture from which come super brands.  Take Pabst Blue Ribbon, for example.  A no-taste, cheap, working man’s beer in its time, coopted by hipsters, renamed PBR, and made an icon of cool. Retro fashions are always in style, and designers are taking even the dorkiest Seventies double-knit and accessorizing it with style and 21st century verve.

Crowdsourcing, social media, and the incredibly dynamic exchange of ideas will continue to be an eternal fountain of innovation.  It will no longer be a few trend-setters cruising the Mission or Detroit for cool new fashions.  It will be millions of young people sharing crazy photos of themselves on Facebook, going viral on YouTube, and going commercial.

No, Mr. Brooks.  You don’t need to worry. We will continue to produce fashion, movies, food, and music that the French hate and everybody else loves.

Recipes–Thai Style Braised Pork Loin

This is a truly delicious recipe, and although it requires a number of steps, it is worth it.  The pork loin is marinated in coconut milk and spices, then braised over high heat and served with a sauce of coconut cream, fresh basil, green curry, and sweet mango chutney.  It is spicy, sweet, and fragrant.

Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients.  You may have to make an extra trip to the store for a few items, but once you have them preparation is simple.  Composing the marinade takes about ten minutes, the sauce and garnish another ten, and the braising of the pork about twenty.  So all in all, no more than 30 minutes of work.

Thai Style Braised Pork Loin

For the Marinade

* 1 can coconut milk

* zest of one lime

* 3 Tbsp. fresh grated ginger

* 3-4 shakes hot pepper flakes

* juice of two limes

* 4 cloves garlic, chopped

* 1 Tbsp. hot curry powder

* 2 tsp. paprika

For the sauce

* 1/2 can coconut milk

* 1 very large handful fresh basil, chopped

* 1 Tbsp. green curry paste

* 1 Tbsp. sweet mango chutney (hot or regular)

* 2 heaping tsp. garlic flakes

For the Meat

* 1 1/2 lbs. pork tenderloin (It comes packaged in two long filets)

* 1 Tbsp. dried basil

* 5-6 grindings fresh black pepper

For the garnish

* 1 cup sliced unsalted almonds

* 1/2 cup raisins

* 1/2 cup coconut flakes

* 1/2 cup lightly chopped fresh basil

- For the marinade, put all the ingredients into a plastic bag, place the meat inside, turn a few times to coat well, and put in the refrigerator overnight or for at least eight hours

- Take the pork out of the marinade, wipe well to remove excess liquid and rub with the dried basil and fresh pepper.

- Put the 1/2 can coconut milk, fresh chopped basil, green curry paste, garlic flakes and mango chutney in a saucepan and simmer for about 15 minutes until the sauce becomes slightly colored (i.e. the ingredients have mixed well).  Taste for spices.  If too hot or spicy, you can add extra coconut milk.

- Put the nuts, coconut flakes, and raisins in a medium sized iron skillet and roast until the mixture is fragrant and brown but not burned.  Set aside for about an hour to cool.

- Heat an iron skillet to very high heat, then braise the filets until very brown on all sides

- Reduce the heat and cook for an additional 15 minutes (approx.) It is a bad idea to cut into the filet to test doneness, for the juices will run out, so you will have to tell be feel.  The meat should be done when it is slightly firm to the touch.  It shouldn’t feel soft or malleable.  It is a bit tricky, for you do not want over- or underdone pork.

- When the meat is done, let it sit for about 20 minutes; then cut into 2” pieces

- Arrange the meat on a platter, pour the sauce evenly over the top, add the nut-raisin-coconut garnish, add the chopped basil and serve

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not Sure God Exists? Better Not Take A Chance

I grew up Catholic in the Fifties and had plenty of Father Murphy’s fire and brimstone until he toppled over from apoplexy.  We all knew this particular end was coming, because even before he got up a full head of steam, his face reddened, and sweat streamed down his face and stained his vestments.  When all pistons were firing, the boiler fully stoked, and the great holy engine inside of him working at full throttle, Father Murphy was indeed a sight to behold.  We were all sinners, he said, a nation of vipers, screwing our way to hell, living a life of lewd thoughts and desires, debauchery, and perversion.  The bile spewed out of him like a goatish devil in a Bosch painting.  He flailed his arms, pointed to heaven, thrust his arms down at the Hell awaiting all of us.  “Sin, sin, SIN”, he hollered, his face twisted with rage.  “You all live in sin and you will burn in Hell for it”.

Father Murphy never changed his tune.  He railed and fulminated like a madman every Sunday.  He never got off on secular tangents like the Protestant ministers of my friends’ churches – injustice, dishonesty, or moral failing – and just kept hammering away at sin, lechery, and the torment of everlasting damnation.  I had no idea what he was talking about since I was dragged to church at a very young age – so young in fact that I remember getting my legs caught behind the kneeler during the consecration and thumping around on the floor while my mother tried to untangle me.  Other than that diversion, Father Murphy’s display was a little like the Mad Clown at the circus which came to town every summer.

As I got older I realized that Father Murphy was talking to me – all my dirty thoughts and unholy practices – but try as I might I could not banish the image of Nancy Bishop’s sweet nubile breasts from my mind, or keep my hands off my pizzle. No number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys said at the altar at confession could keep me chaste; and it was not much longer before I jettisoned the whole affair – sin, damnation, and Father Murphy.

I haven’t missed either religion or the community of churchgoers.  I am not an atheist, nor an agnostic, but only indifferent.  I have no mission to disprove the existence of God, nor the time or patience to parse Aquinas and Marx in an attempt to get off the fence.  Religion simply doesn’t matter to me.  I am just as fascinated, however, by Bible-thumping preachers as I was by Father Murphy, the whirling dervish, The Man Possessed. 

I recently went to a mega-church Sunday service in Mississippi, and was not disappointed.  Just like Father Murphy, the preacher warmed up slowly, getting the bile going, feeling the hot acids of God’s wrath start to bite.  When he hit his stride he was incomparable.  He strode across the stage – sometimes raving, other times quiet, reflective, waiting for the magma to rise up.  He would turn to the congregation, raise his Bible up towards heaven, and with a pained, tearful expression, shouted “Jesus” again and again until the crowd took up the chant, interspersing Jesus with Praise the Lord and Hallelujah.  Finally the whole congregation was on its feet, swaying in unison with the preacher, yelling “Jesus, forgive me” or “Come to me, Jesus”. 

T.M. Luhrmann writing in the New York Times (5.30.13) and author of a recent book on Evangelicals in the United States, explains that not all fundamentalists are as blindly faithful and slavish to Biblical entreaty as outsiders think.  Many of them, in fact, express their doubts about the existence of God, but figure it is a good idea to hedge your bets and assume that He exists.

In a charismatic evangelical church I studied…one devout woman said…: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”  It was a modern-day version of Pascal’s wager: in the face of her uncertainty about God’s existence, she decided that she was better off behaving as if God were real.

This covering all fronts – believing until you disbelieve – is not surprising.  Even if there is one chance in a million that you will ascend to a heaven filled with vestal virgins, cool brooks, and the radiant light of Everlasting Glory, you would be a fool not to take it.  Or, conversely, even a miniscule chance of burning forever in a sulfurous Hell, an eternity of howling and shrieking, unremitting torment in a misery without end is to be avoided at all costs.

In another charitable reference, author Luhrmann cites Emile Durkheim who “argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural.”

In other words, even if you don’t really believe in God, there is always the embracing, comforting community of religious followers to give your life meaning.  This same mega-church where I heard the ranting pastor catered to every possible interest group.  There was a pre-school program, a Christian academy, and events for senior citizens.  There was Bible-study for teens, spiritual rehabilitation sessions for those about to fall off the rails, Christian music lessons, prayer breakfasts, celebratory dinners, and much more. Outside of work, there was no need to go anywhere else but the mega-church.

Luhrmann closes by saying that the secular conception that belief comes before religious expression is false.  That is, you do not have to come to conclusions about the existence of God or the nature of divine intervention or heaven and hell or anything else.  You can still enjoy the congregation of like-minded souls and be spiritually aroused by passionate rhetoric.  In her years studying evangelical churches, writes Luhrmann, “I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it.”

This is all well and good, but Luhrmann avoids the central issue – that most evangelicals have rejected reason, rationality, and moderation in their expression of belief, however shaky it might be. Survey after survey has found that vast majorities of fundamental Christians reject Evolution and believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.  Such absolute a priori convictions eliminate any kind of reasonable dialogue on secular issues. If in their heart-of-hearts these rabidly conservative Christians harbor doubts about the existence of God, you would never know it; for the fabled community about which Luhrmann so fondly speaks has coopted and clotured debate. From what is heard from the pulpit, the podium, and the hustings, God is not only alive and well, but he loves America.  While many evangelical Christians may find joy in religion, many others find solidarity and political militancy.

Belief, whether it be full-throated or doubtful, has a very dark side; and it will continue to be the corrosive and negative force it has been through the centuries.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Swearing More But Enjoying It Less?

I swear a lot – or at least I thought so until I caught bits of the comedy specials aired on HBO where the f-word is used frequently, persistently, and without regard to context, timing, or impact.  What used to be shocking no longer is and has become a facile prop for very unfunny comedians. The word has become the stock in trade for all stand-up comedians, de rigeur for the young comic, women out to claim their street creds, and even older guys who don’t want to be left out.

I grew up in an era where swearing on radio or television was totally verboten.  This did not affect the humor of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Jack Benny, or Carl Reiner. Even today, one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the business – Robin Williams before he turned to serious acting – never had to resort to swearing.  His monologues, many completely impromptu, ranged from one perfectly-captured character or sequence to another without pause.  He changed personality like Jonathan Winters or Lily Tomlin but in split seconds.  He had a genius for observation, mimicry, and for understanding the funny and the ridiculous.

Melissa Mohr writing in The Guardian (5.29.13) agrees that we are swearing more but that the impact of once shocking words is waning:

Today, the same pattern is being repeated with our sexual and excremental obscenities. They are very slowly losing their charge, as oaths did, becoming more acceptable not just on YouTube but in college classrooms, newspapers and literature. We won't ever face a lack of really powerful words with which to shock and offend, though. Epithets are picking up the f-word's slack and becoming more and more taboo.

This is only partially true.  While the f-word has become a staple on television and the social media and has become part of the popular lexicon, it still retains its power and its particular ability to enrage.  Under the right circumstances, ‘Fuck you!” is guaranteed to spike the blood pressure and jack the adrenaline.  ‘The finger’ is no less provocative.  See what happens when someone cuts you off on the road.  You flash your lights and blow your horn, he gives you the finger, and without thinking you clamp your hands down on the wheel and enraged take off after him.

There is a Facebook post - ‘I Love Fucking Science’ – now circulating.  It features unusual scientific tidbits – frogs that quack, mating behavior of genetically modified chickens, etc.  The title is a throwback to the Sixties (“Wow, fuckin’ groovy”) to express admiration and surprise.  ‘Fuckin’ awesome’ or ‘Fucking incredible’ are modern turns of phrase – innocuous intensifiers that have dumbed down the language, but harmless nonetheless.

Overuse kills usage; and soon the audiences of stand-up comedians will realize that they are not getting their money’s worth – especially if they tune in to an old Jonathan Winters or Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca sketch.  Comics will change their tune and turn to other more offensive ways to get a rise out of people:

In our current PC environment, it is hard to do the things that made people laugh in the past – the burlesque of the stumbling blind person; take-offs on stone-deaf old people; and ethnic jokes.  It is perhaps true that scrubbing language clean of ‘offensive’ remarks may well encourage tolerance and acceptance; but more than likely this type of humor has simply gone underground.  There is plenty of academic research about why people laugh when they see an awkward stumble – the classic slipping on a banana peel – and laughing at stereotypes is an affirmation of one’s own supposedly higher status.  We are not clumsy, money-grubbing, or swish. 

In fact, pejorative jokes play a small but important role in reducing stereotypes. My  first generation Italian-American parents did all they could to expunge all traces of garlic, parlor sconces, and guinea-wagons from our house and driveway.  I had no choice but to shop at Brooks Bros. and J. Press.  They knew that the WASPs in our neighborhood looked at us as meatball-eating slobs who wore wife-beaters, swilled rotgut, and smoked cheroots.  If all Italians cleaned up their act, my mother reasoned, we wouldn’t be called guineas and wops. Jewish jokes are less common today than before because Jews are far more assimilated and inter-married than a few decades ago.  Italians, Irish, and Polish Americans have long been part of the mainstream.

So, I see nothing wrong with joking about the non-assimilated.  Latinos and blacks by and large are still very homogeneous groups with very distinct cultural characteristics.  While there is a black man in the White House and one on the Supreme Court, there are still millions of blacks wearing bling, doing the pimp walk, and bustin’ rhymes. If you have ever seen Eddie Murphy imitate an uptight white man, then you can imagine the potential for parodying ghetto behavior.  Public joking simply expresses what most people say in their own living rooms.

The only class of people who have not escaped PC opprobrium are fat people who are now fair game.  I have seen comedians lay into fat people with a vengeance, happy that they for once have a juicy, still acceptable and funny target.  All the racial, ethnic, and sexual jokes they have been suppressing for years come out in a circus show of fat-animus.  These jokes are understandable – obesity is a no-no.  Fat people are on the margins of cultural acceptance.  They are far from the social norm, and like every other marginal group before them, are legitimate prey.

Returning to completely free speech regarding racial, ethnic, and other social disparities is unlikely, given the harshness and implacability of the PC thought police and the beneficiaries of easy-come lawsuits for ‘harassment’; so we will have to suffer through more f-word clowning onstage and even more f-word currency in everyday language.

One day many years ago, I visited my parents with my 2-year old daughter.  They had no crib, so we fixed up a sleeping area for her in the corner of their bedroom. We tucked her in, gave her her blanket (Bobby), and kissed her goodnight.

The next morning my mother said, “You know, your daughter woke us up last night because she couldn’t find her blanket.”  I knew this wasn’t all.

“Do you know what she said?”, my mother asked.

“Where’s my fucking Bobby?”

I realized then that I swore a lot, but made no effort to stop.  I knew that my daughter would soon understand the difference between ‘Where’s my fucking Bobby?’ and ‘Fuck you!”

So the f-word will become more and more diluted in common parlance, and become an expletive, an innocuous intensifier, and an interjection; but will retain its incensing power for many years to come.  Comedians will soon find some other way to get laughs as the word loses its shock value entirely; and without bad stereotype jokes to fall back on, they may actually develop some funny material. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Science vs. The Humanities–A False Debate

On May 19th Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic spoke at Brandeis University on the false prophets of Science and Technology and stressed the ageless importance of the humanities.  It is the humanities which give our life meaning, he said, and help us in our struggle to understand our lives and our place in the universe.  In other words, where would we be without Milton, Dante, and Shakespeare?  In today’s world, he went on, we are threatened by dissembling forces which remove us from personal insight, exploration of the soul, consideration of death and the beyond; and which in their reductionism and implacable rationality narrow our worldview to microscopic bits and chips.  Our aspirations have become mundane, our values cheapened, and our relationships, so commonly defined by asocial and impersonal media, deadened of any spontaneity and impulse.

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work (reprinted by The New Republic 5.28.13)

We have become enslaved by machines and by ‘scientism’.  In the digital universe, he goes on, “knowledge is reduced to the status of information”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Science and technology are not the enemies of learning but the means to greater knowledge and understanding; and from the days of The Enlightenment until the present, a rational, objective analysis of the world in which we live has always provided new insights into human nature and behavior and has always provided the basis on which moral, ethical, and religious discourse has been built.

In Shakespeare’s day the impact of Copernicus’ cosmology was just being felt. Mankind was no longer at the center of the universe, preferred by God and anointed by Nature.  After millennia of believing in a special relationship between the gods and Man, all human institutions were forced to reconsider their reason for being, their utility, and their purpose.

After Einstein the entire scientific establishment had to rethink its millennia-old conception of the relationship between matter and energy and the very nature of time.  Einstein’s discoveries not only changed science but philosophy.  Things were no longer easily understandable, static, and permanent.  The solid world was replaced by a much more dynamic and powerful one.

Quantum physics introduced Uncertainty to the world.  One could isolate a particle in space, but not in time; or track its speed but not its place.  It was only probable that the particle was travelling at a certain speed; and it only might be in a given place.  Probability replaced certainty, and there could be no more profound implication on philosophy or human perception.

Genetic modification will soon transform human nature.  There is no reason to think that recombinant DNA research will stop; and once we finally decode the human genome in all its complexity, we will be on our way to remaking ourselves.

When the interface between the mind and the computer becomes complete, all information ever recorded – every image, sound, note, smell, color, and taste – will be available to us in a millisecond.  Social networks will become neural networks in which we are all connected to others mind-to-mind.  Wieseltier criticizes American society for becoming too plugged in, too reliant on smartphones and tablets; too associated electronically; and too multi-tasking to stop and think and reflect.  However, he is missing the point that society is simply being reconfigured.  These electronic interfaces are but the first baby steps towards full integration of mind and machine and a truly virtual social environment.

These two scientific advances – genetic modification and mind-computer interface – will completely change the way any of us looks at the world, thinks of life and death, and the meaning of it all.

Big data has totally revolutionized inquiry.  No longer do we have to rely on individual pundits, academics, or scientists for new knowledge.  The aggregation of data from billions of information points will do just as well.  In a famous exchange between Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistic theory and Google’s Peter Norvig, Norvig said that we do not need to know how the brain produces language to create artificial intelligence, but simple what it looks like when spoken.  In other words, using big data, Google can collect all expressions of all languages to find commonalities – that is, the nature of language.

Out of a mass of a million random suggested solutions to a given problem, the chances that one will be correct are very high – higher in fact than individual efforts.  Crowdsourcing is not only a successful use of information technology, but it is changing the way we look at how knowledge is generated and used.

In other words, science provides the intellectual nutrients for philosophical thought.

This does not mean that there is no place for the humanities in today’s world.  On the contrary, I re-immersed myself in Shakespeare after many decades, having come to the conclusion that only through a literary vision would I be able to make sense of what I saw was a surprisingly predictable human history; and an even more predictable human nature.  Shakespeare confirmed what I had already concluded from studies in genetics, sociology, psychology, and anthropology – until human beings are genetically modified, they will always act in the same self-serving, aggressive ways of survival.

What Shakespeare did do, however, was to address how we deal with this perpetual cycle of history and human nature; how we can act nobly within a world of gods, Fate, and Nature.  All great writers explored this dilemma from Aeschylus to Nietzsche; and all serious writers now and in the future will place human reactions within a probabilistic, virtual, and genetically changing world.

I respect Wieseltier for his passionate defense of the Humanities – I am a product of a liberal arts education and proud of it – but I am afraid that he sounds like an old curmudgeon in his Brandeis address.  He is as fearful of change and a new world order as a much older man; and seems as enslaved by humanism as he claims we all are by scientism.  It is a narrow view, one too timid and arrière-garde for his young audience.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Ultimate Third World Traveler–Elegant Hotels And Down And Dirty

Robert Henry was a world traveler for 40 years and visited over 50 countries on all continents. He traveled to small villages in the African bush, banged over dirt tracks to reach the most far-flung and isolated hamlets in the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh, froze in the 14,000 ft. reaches of the Bolivian altiplano, and stayed in the thatched huts of curanderos and witch doctors on tributaries of the Amazon.

He rode colectivo taxis over the Peruvian Andean passes, jammed in the back seat of a banged-up Toyota for the twelve-hour ride from Huancayo to Ayacucho.  He rode reconditioned Bluebird school buses up the narrow, rock-strewn roads of the lower Himalayas teetering above the 1000 ft. gorges on either side.  He traveled across the heart of India third class on the Deccan Queen in high summer, got stranded in the Mauritanian desert, and ground along for interminable hours on the Bamako to Mopti road before the Chinese highway was built.

He wandered through the mazes of markets and bazaars in Old Delhi, Niamey, and Bangkok, took tea with village elders under a banyan tree in North India, drank home-brewed beer in the quartiers of Kinshasa, ate mechoui on the roof of the prefect in a Saharan oasis, and battled flies in dank restaurants in Thana.

However, he stayed in great hotels.  In fact, some of the great hotels of the world – the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, the Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo, elegant grande dame hotels in the Carpathians, five-star hotels on the Corniche in Dakar, the Victorian polished mahogany and teak Splendide and the gingerbread watering hold of Graham Greene, the Oloffson n Port-au-Prince  and many, many more.  One can live in luxury and get down and dirty on the same trip.

The Raffles Singapore
The Oloffson, Port-au-Prince
Writing in the New York Times (5.26.13) Tony Perrottet writes of Rich Travel, Poor Travel and how tourists see the world and makes a distinction between those who travel well and those who suffer third class. On a recent trip to India, Perrottet had banged around in the worst possible way, but then met up with friends who travelled well:
In their cocoon of opulence, they quizzed me about my comical but vivid excursions, which had left me both exhausted and exhilarated. I began to realize that they suffered their own form of travel envy. The sense of control money provided them had also served to deaden their experience.
This, of course, overstates and exaggerates the case to make a point – one should travel ‘local’ to get the taste and smell of place and time; and cites Epictetus who averred that the only way to travel was to suffer. Writing of the long and arduous trek to the Olympic Games he said:
“Don’t you swelter all day in the sun? Aren’t you jammed in with the crowds?” Epictetus asked. “Don’t the din and the shouting and the petty annoyances drive you mad? But of course you put up with it all because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”
Perrottet goes on to describe the travel of the rich and super rich whether the British governors who decamped with elephants and camels to visit their districts in India, or the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts who built elegant lodges for their occasional hunting trips, all to insulate themselves from the rabble, the heat and dust, the choking crowds, the acrid, rancid smells, the chaos, noise, and misery of local life.

King George V and the Queen arrive in Delhi in 1911, where he was proclaimed Emperor

Of course the wealthy want to avoid the stench and abomination of the poor.  Who would choose to live in a Calcutta slum when they could lodge at the Grand; or suffer the brutal heat of the Gangetic Plain when they can sit in cool, high-ceilinged comfort, fanned by punkawallahs, repairing to the verandah in the evening for a gin fizz or a chota peg?

The modern traveller, however, never has to face this dilemma.  A good rule of thumb is always ‘Slum by Day, Five Star by Night; and it guided Robert Henry well over my many decades in the Third World.

Calcutta was one of his favorite cities, a surprise to most perhaps because of its reputation as the Black Hole of India, all poverty and Mother Teresa caring for the poor and learning about oneself in the worst slum in the world in the movie City of Joy.  Calcutta is a vibrant, exciting, demanding city of kaleidoscopic diversity, intensity, unfathomable density, oases of old English graveyards and spacious parks.  It is the intellectual and artistic center of India and one of the most passionately political.

When Henry worked for the World Bank he would get a stopover on his way from Washington to Dhaka, and rather than take it in London or Paris, he would stop for two days in Calcutta, stay at the Grand, and wander the city.  He would walk until he hit the wall – the moment when the crowds, the heat, the closeness of the smells of urine, dung, horses, spices, goats, curry, bidis, vomit and incense became suffocating; when the tonga clatter, cycle bells, lorry horns, hawker cries became disorienting; and when the tangle of bright sari cloth, garish billboards, naked sadhus, scuffles and altercations, shitting children, and rank goat troupes all became too much.  He had to get out, to retreat within the protective perimeter of the Grand.

Drenched with sweat, blackened with diesel fumes, slum dust, and mud slime, he entered into the chillingly cold, marble lobby of the Grand.  The tall, elegant, liveried Sikh greeted me with a slight bow, and a servant offered me lemonade from a silver tray.  All was quiet and poised inside the hotel.  There was an elegance, an old-world propriety, and a comforting familiarity.  There were brass planters of palm, floral bouquets, old prints of the Raj on the walls, tea tables set with white linen.  It was magnificent.  It was more than a refuge.  It was another world.

Paul Theroux is a great travel writer because he is personal.  Travel for him, like many before him is an adventure and a voyage of discovery.  In his Tao of Travel he has collected the writings of travellers from Ibn Battuta to Mungo Park; and the theme of all of them was that solitary travel when one leaves familiar confines, the comfort and security of home, and the pleasure of companions, can one explore from the inside. Only when confronting the unknown, the dangerous, the unexpected, and the unfamiliar can you find out what you are made of.  You can finally judge and gauge yourself by yourself.

In his latest travel book, Last Train to Zona Verde he travels up the ‘left’ side of Africa from Cape Town to Angola, paralleling the voyage he took on the ‘right’ side from Sudan to South Africa, described in Dark Star Safari.  Both books are typically Theroux – perceptive, personal, and confessional.  He traveled farther into the interior of Africa than Henry ever had and been more adventurous than he could ever have been; but he stayed in some great hotels.  In Zona Verde he tells of the great hotels of Windhoek and the pleasure they gave him.  For him as for Henry, these sanctuaries of civility and the good life were simply parts of a complex voyage.  It was never either-or; it was always both.

There is no doubt that many if not most travellers fear the unknown and want to tick off the wonders of the world to tell the folks back home.  Packaged tours, plastic and programmed are a billion dollar industry.  Expatriates throughout the developing world often live in gated, hermetically-sealed environments.  Official Americans rarely left the Embassy compound in Delhi, and there was no reason to.  There was a commissary, school, swimming pool, church, bowling alley, and restaurant.  American beer, American food, and most of all an American ambience.  You didn’t live in India.  You lived in America.

Perrottet makes an error, one feels, in conflating those who live in isolated comfort or luxury to deliberately avoid, shun, or ignore the real world; and those who see elegance and chaos as but two elements of a new world. 

Jekyll Island, Georgia was one of the hunting campgrounds of the captains of industry of the early 20th century described by Perrottet.  Each family of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or Cranes built their own ‘cottages’, hunted and fished by day, and had magnificently elegant dinners by night back on the grounds.  All these cottages and main hotel have been recently restored.  The Jekyll Island Hotel is a magnificent place  - tailored, manicured lawns, elegant, chandeliered dining room, flowered walkways, gardens, river walks, impressive live oaks spreading across wide lawns.  Henry went there often – before and after his regular ‘Cracker Trips’, ventures into rural Georgia, the Deep South, and another world.

Henry does not travel anymore to far-flung outposts in Africa, and like Paul Theroux who in Last Train to Zona Verde wrote what seems to be his swan-song, he has had enough.  Like Theroux, he had increasingly found himself in some fly-blown, miserable crossroads in the middle of nowhere and asked himself, “What am I doing here?”.  Neither the excitement and adventure of hard travel nor the special counterpoise of the elegant hotels and the end of the journey tempt him any longer; but it had been a good ride.  Henry tended to remember the hotels more than he did the slums and bazaars which all tended to look alike after a while; but the hotels are all unique, special, set in a particularly period of time and history.  They each have their own character, charm, and brand of elegance.

Robert Henry missed neither; and has moved on to other things; but he had not one moment of regret for what was one great ride.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Feminine Beauty–The Case Of South Korea

The female form has been idolized for millennia.  The picture below The Venus of Willendorf dates from 24,000 BCE.

More familiar are the images of Greek and Roman women, none more well-known than the Venus de Milo


More recent are those by Velazquez, Goya, and Rubens shown respectively, below

Painters and sculptors have found the female form to be alluring and symbolic of Nature’s beauty.  Shakespeare wrote of beauty in the same way, when he wrote of his Dark Lady.  His later Sonnets are reflections on her beauty and on Nature’s beauty. Sonnet 127 is his first in a series:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
There has been no decline in male appreciation of female beauty over the centuries, and today’s popular magazines – both for women and men – display the current cultural ideal:

Image result for images cover gentlemen's quarterly   

The difference today is that ‘objectification’ of women as sexual objects is a big issue.  Men should stop looking at women through a jaded sexual lens and see them for what they are – intelligent, caring, whatever; and women should stop expressing themselves in the very fashion that highlights their sexual nature.
Women in America are still schizophrenic about the whole brains-and-beauty thing.  If the popular culture is any indication, they want to look sexy, alluring, and irresistible; but somehow want men to ignore this display.  Some cultures, like Italy, seem to have balanced the two.  When an attractive woman gets in an elevator in Rome, men are anything but indifferent.  Rather than look up at the ceiling or peck away at their I-Phones like their American counterparts, Roman men will look admiringly at her clothes, her hair, her shoes, her makeup, and her figure.  They – the woman and her male admirers – have no problem getting off on the same floor and working together.

In The Atlantic (5.25.13) Zara Stone writes of what she calls the ‘self-racism’ of Korean women who are opting for cosmetic surgery at four times the rate of American women – one in five Korean women will submit to the procedure to look Western.  They want less Asian-looking eyelids, and more Western-looking faces.  In other words, lose the round face, the flat nose, and the slanty eyes. Below, form Stone’s article are pictures of Miss Korea 1960 and the winner of 2012.


This transformation is particularly complicated because it in fact is modeled after a very Asian ideal – the anime girl:

It isn’t so much that Korean women want to look like Western women; but that they want to look like anime women who look like Western woman – an important difference.

The American feminist-inspired assumption is that millions of young Korean women have been mindlessly seduced by the West, the media, and by popular culture.  They are mutilating themselves to adhere to a current cultural standard of beauty.  Of course there is nothing new in this:

However, Korean culture is complex.  There is an extremely high premium placed on work, family, intellectual achievement, and success for both men and women; and that current standards for beauty – rightly or wrongly – are important ingredients for female achievement:
"There's a real problem when you make generalizations about a whole country full of women, that they're all culturally duped," [a Korean-American professor at NYU] said in an interview. "There are certain economic situations happening in Korea and America that might impel different choices. We -- Americans -- might not see plastic surgery on the same level here that we see in Korea. But we do see people looking to the consumer market for help in their personal lives. Weigh that through an economic framework, and it's what you're seeing in Korea today."
Korean society, like most, has placed a high value on feminine beauty; and has unashamedly kept it as a criterion for hiring.  When applying for a job, a woman’s physical appearance is very much taken into consideration.  The assessment is upfront and center; and the only difference between Korea and America is that the Koreans admit that they assess a woman’s appearance and Americans do not.  However, it is well-known that we, like any other cultural group, will take beautiful, well-dressed, poised, confident women over ugly ones – regardless of professional qualifications – any day of the year.  American employers just won’t – and can’t – admit it.

So, what are we Americans to make of this Korean cultural trend? Koreans have their own standards for female beauty which have changed over the years, just like those in America.  Beauty is important for Koreans as well as for Americans, and both cultures celebrate it.  Both cultures do their share of ‘mutilation whether body piercings, tattoos, nose jobs, breast augmentation, or eyelid modification; and both cultures always express a preference for beautiful people over ugly ones.

Is it the numbers that disturb us – 20 percent of Korean women opting for plastic surgery does seem a lot?  It shouldn’t, because Korean society is far more homogeneous than ours; and we have white, black, Asian, Latino, Arab, Native American standards to deal with.  Not everyone wants thicker lips, straighter hair, or less slanty eyes. Is it what appears to be a slavish obsession with beauty?  Not with our own beauty fetish.  It can only be the unholy link between beauty and professional advancement; but as I have mentioned above, ours is a very hypocritical, holier-than-thou view.  Why does Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo get so much attention?  Check out her picture below:

Or why did President Obama say that California had the most beautiful Attorney General in the United States? Check out her picture, below:

Korea-bashing on the subject of female beauty is a little disingenuous to say the least, if not hypocritical.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Have American Men Lost Their Charm?

Benjamin Schwarz, writing in The Atlantic (5.22.13) has pondered why there are no more any charming leading men on the screen today.  What happened to James Garner,. Clark Gable, and Cary Grant, and why is there but one remaining, classy, alluring, charming star – George Clooney?

It is because charm is not virtue, says Schwarz, and thus eschewed by more impatient and demanding men for whom results not process are important.
The quintessential modern American hero, the eternally jejune and earnest Charles Lindbergh, who became a god when not yet a man, was in every way the antithesis of charm. America’s entire political history has been in some basic way a struggle between Jefferson—self-righteous, humorless, prickly, at once intellectually ardent and woolly—and Hamilton, a man foreign-born, witty, stylish, coolly brilliant, generous, possessed of a rare rapport with and an understanding of women
Charm is lacking, Schwarz goes on, because the market economy (always a culprit) has commercialized relationships, and in their compulsion to close the deal, men have overlooked the importance of simply paying attention to women. Also our society has also become sexually polarized, and being charming is somehow being gay and not a masculine ideal. 
One of the three most important virtues in a man, according to Christopher Hitchens—among the very few charming men I’ve known—is the ability to think like a woman. (The other two are courage, moral and physical, and a sense of the absurd.) Certainly this is one reason many men find charm so alien and alienating. But a man’s ability to think like a woman, and its concomitant—an understanding of and interest in women—is probably rooted not in sexuality but in a sympathetic relationship with his mother or other women who raised him.
Add to that the pervasiveness of the youth culture which got its first charge in the Sixties and is still going strong. Free love was the mantra of the day, and nothing was more charmless that hopping from sleeping bag to sleeping bag.

The essence of charm is attentiveness to women – not the effusive dandyish attentiveness hilariously portrayed by Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but an expression of genuine interest and affection.  

Perhaps the most common complaint of women of any age is that men don’t listen to or pay attention to them.  There is enough residual female insecurity or some gene-wired sensitivity to others to make women want to be appreciated, loved, and admired.  Women have had their fill of self-centered airbags, posturing machos, and blind ignoramuses; and respond quickly and easily to a man who, in a non-threatening, but confident way charms them.  The ideal, of course  is to find a man who not only is interested in them, but downright sexy.  Eduardo Noriega, playing Carlos in Transsiberian seduces the Emily Mortimer character because of his charm and his confident sexuality.

Charm has not disappeared from the screen in younger actors, it has just acquired a virility that has been absent.  Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, William Powell, and Fred MacMurray were all charming in their way, but were sexless compared to overtly virile and sexually persuasive men like Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful.  The Diane Lane character cannot resist Martinez and cheats on her husband Richard Gere.

Confidence has been a characteristic of charming men whether the Cary Grant or Olivier Martinez model, and it is that trait, along with attentiveness, which appeals to women and gives them their sexiness.  Women know that not only are these modern charmers interested in them, but want them.

Watching the films of Grant, Gable, or Garner, one is often struck by their antics and not their pursuit.  Today’s charming men have jettisoned playfulness and gotten down to business.
There will always be some deception involved in charm, notes Schwarz.  Men who have charm know they have it, are aware of its power, and are skilled at using it.  There will always be a trace of manipulation in all exercise of charm:
Charm is a social—a civilized—virtue. But its very refinement, the weight it places on self-presentation, means that it is inherently manipulative. All of Grant’s characteristic winning expressions—the double take, the cocked head, the arched eyebrow, the sideways glance—signaled that he was pulling something off.
Women don’t seem to care because they assume that if the charmer is up to no good they can handle it; and if he is the real item – an attentive, sexual man – they see his deceptiveness as an expression of his powerful sexual desire, exactly what they are looking for.

If modern men have given up on charm because they consider it a bourgeois affectation, old-fashioned, and meaningless; they are missing a lot of great opportunities.  Of course you can’t learn to be charming.  A man might be able to acquire some of the trappings (again, see Steve Martin’s burlesque on learning to be suave), but unless he is really interested in women and truly likes them, his charm will be nothing more than an obvious, transparent charade.

A friend once said that he gave his son only one piece of advice – “A silver tongue and a little bit of charm will get you farther than anything else”.  He was not being cynical, just realistic.  Whether in the sexual arena or the corporate world, everyone likes to be flattered and charmed.  It works wonders.

Drones And Targeted Killing

President Obama has gone waffly on American drone policy; but this untenable and anti-historical position will soon be overturned.  By calling a de facto truce with al-Qaeda (permanent war is not sustainable) he is doubling the retreat.  We are and will be at war with a hydra-headed, implacable foe out to destroy us.  Once again we have been undone by a self-serving political misjudgment, a wrongheaded military policy, and a misreading of our enemies.

Obama has won a devilish trifecta.  First, he has let al-Qaeda know that America is tired of war.  It is sapping our vital resources, killing innocent civilians, and only serving to further enrage our enemies. Second, he has confirmed current military policy to ‘do no harm’ – that is, to limit civilian and American military casualties.Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have never had such compunctions.  Suicide bombings are daily occurrences, killing both militants and civilians alike.  This nice, friendly, hearts-and-minds, family-considerate policy has only prolonged our wars and encouraged our enemies. If a country takes the serious decision to begin a war, then it should take every means to end it quickly, decisively, and completely. 

Thirdly, Obama has assumed that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea, and Iran will listen to reason, disarm, abandon their decades-long antagonistic fight against the United States, and help lead the world to peace.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  al-Qaeda has been bloody-minded, aggressive, and absolutely unstoppable for twenty years.  North Korea has become increasingly hostile since the end of the Korean War.  Iran has not shown one sign of softening or weakness since 1979. Not only that, these regimes and asymmetrical enemies go by no Western rules of civility and Christian ethics. 

Where did this sudden concern about civilians come about? Anyone with the slightest understanding of history knows that Rolling Thunder, Nixon’s campaign to bomb North Vietnam into submission was indiscriminate in its killing of both militants and civilians.  Napalm was no less generalized mass killing.  Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were expressly, deliberately designed to kill civilians, sap the will of the enemy and win the war. 

History is not on the side of gentleness, compassion, or restraint. Genghis Khan took no pity on his enemies, and his routes of conquest were lined with the impaled heads of those who stood in his way.

Let’s make no mistake about it.  War, terror, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban will not go away; and if Obama wants to call off the perpetual war and call it something else (which he will have to do), all fine and good; but with his current policies, winning is not an option.

Please see my two previous blogs where I discuss this subject in more depth:

Drones and Targeted Killings – Bombs Away!


The Case for Secret Warfare


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Princesses As Role Models For Girls? Try Shakespeare’s Queens Instead

In an article in The Atlantic (5.22.13) Noah Berlatsky considers the dilemma of princesses as role models for young girls. Should these fairytale icons be girly girls, tomboys, or something else.

It is a fatiguing argument, for every parent knows that little girls like to play dress They usually do not put on Daddy’s Caterpillar hat and work belt but go through Mommy’s closet for her frilliest outfits and high-heeled shoes.  Girls are not playing with dump trucks and He-Man figures, but with Barbie.  However they got this idea of feminine fantasy (many stripped-down neo-Feminists insist that they cannot possibly be responsible), our daughters seem drawn to a very predictable and classic fantasy. Many, too, subscribe to the narrative as well as the image.  Being carried off by a Prince Charming – a wealthy but sensitive corporate lawyer, for example, with a good haircut and a Porsche – still seems like a nice idea.

The argument is particularly fatiguing, however, because most of these same girly girls do not grow up to be bimbos with augmented breasts and dyed blonde hair.  They become take-no-prisoners power lawyers or run roughshod over the male competition on their way up to the glass ceiling.  In other words, most women are smart enough to hold two conflicting ideas in their pretty little heads at the same time – a fantasy dream of considerate wealth, marriage to an attractive, successful husband, and a life of celebrity; and a realistic ambition for personal power and influence.

Berlatsky overlooks one important source for female role models who combine both desires – Shakespeare.  Shakespeare’s queens are strong, defiant, purposeful, and far more canny and resourceful than their husbands.  Margaret, the wife of the weak and pious Henry VI is a good example.  He won’t fight to defend his kingdom, so she will; and she takes to the battlefield against the French in his stead.  The princesses Goneril and Regan, daughters to King Lear, may not be models for filial piety and moral rectitude, but they are strong, determined, and implacably dedicated to the pursuit of power. Eleanor of Aquitaine, not satisfied with being Queen of France, married the future Henry II; and with him had two sons who would become kings – Richard and John. In King John, she was the power behind the throne of her weak and incompetent son.  The powerful Eleanor was once a princess, two times a queen, and twice a queen mother.  She of course led a luxurious courtly life, dressed in finery, strolled through formal gardens, ate sumptuous meals, and was in all ways a fantasy princess. Cleopatra was the embodiment of female beauty, pageantry, style, and power.  She was a woman that no man could refuse; and understood power so completely that she used them for her own political ends.

Berlatsky does a particular disservice to girls and women by limiting his discussion to Wonder Woman, Merida, and Dealing with Dragons. Admittedly Shakespeare is not exactly beauty salon reading, but one does not have to be a literary scholar to find examples of sexy, alluring women with a princess fantasy who are in fact strong, determined, if not calculating women.  Tennessee Williams’ Maggie the Cat has been seduced by the idea of money and power ever since she met her prince – Brick, the son of the wealthiest family in Mississippi – and did everything she could to capture him and have his children.  Christine Mannon in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra married her prince, a war hero and civilian leader, but soon after took over the reins of the family to rule in as bloody a way as Tamora, Queen of the Amazons in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

It seems trite and menial to address the issue of femininity and female power within such a narrow popular context especially when so many examples of truly evolved women exist in literature. Berlatsky’s closing remarks seem a little silly:

The point isn't to create a single perfect role model, be it Merida or Wonder Woman or Cimorene or Cinderella. The point is to give girls, and for that matter boys, the chance to see femininity not solely as a prison to inhabit or escape, but as a story that can be told in lots of ways. As Cimorene's friend Princess Arabella tells her at the end of the novel, "I wouldn't like being princess for the King of the Dragons, but it will suit you down to the ground."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Recipes–Pasta With Grilled Zucchini, Broccoli Puree, Pickled Beets With Mint

The only reason why I am posting these three different recipes together is because that was dinner tonight; and because they go very well together.

The trick to the zucchini pasta is to brown the zucchini, a technique that gives a nice, caramel flavor.  Zucchini any other way to me is very bland, but the little extra work it takes to prepare this dish is well worth it.

The puree of broccoli is very simple to make and is a nice alternative to steamed, grilled, or baked.  The nutmeg and parmesan cheese combined with the broccoli go perfectly together.

Pickled beets are nothing new, but adding fresh mint brings out the best in the vegetable.

Spaghetti with Zucchini

* 1/2 lb. spaghetti (just about any pasta is good with this dish except shells)

* 5 medium zucchini cut into 1” slices

* 1 Tbsp. garlic flakes

* 3 Tbsp. olive oil

* Salt, pepper to taste

* 1/2 cup parmesan cheese

- Put the sliced zucchini, garlic, oil, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl and mix well

- Arrange the zucchini on a cookie sheet or other baking tray (I lay a piece of tin foil to save work cleaning)

- Bake at 450F for about 20 minutes, turning when the zucchini begin to brown

- Broil for 10 minutes until the zucchini are well browned

- Cook the spaghetti, drain, and plate

- Arrange the zucchini on top of the pasta, add the grated cheese, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Broccoli Puree

* 4-5 lg. broccoli crowns

* 1 tsp. grated fresh nutmeg

* 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

* 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

* 1/4 cup whole milk

* 1/4 cup half-and-half

* Salt and pepper to taste

- Steam the broccoli until tender.  Remove and chop into pieces (for blender)

- Place the hot broccoli in the blender, add butter, cream, parmesan, salt and pepper

- Blend until pureed. Adjust to taste.  All the ingredients can be added.

- Serve

Pickled Beets with Fresh Mint

* 5 lg. fresh beets

* 5 lg. leaves of fresh mint, cut in half

* 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

* Salt

- Boil the beets in their skins until done (you should be able to push a fork through easily) about 45 minutes, depending on size

- Put mint and vinegar in a serving bowl

- Slice the beets and place them in the vinegar/mint, and toss.  Place in refrigerator and let sit for a day.

Is America Losing Its Moral Fiber? Google Big Data Suggests We Are

David Brooks has written an article in the New York Times (5.21.13) describing how the frequency of words describing social, moral, ethical, and civic attitudes have changed over time.  Based on this exhaustive Google big data search of over 5 million books in its database, we are using far more words which pertain to individualism than communalism, and fewer words which reflect more traditional values such as honor and courage.  His conclusion is that word frequency is a good indicator of changing societal values and that we are indeed becoming more self-centered, amoral, and less grounded in values than ever before.

I am not so sure.  First is the question of usage. He notes that the words “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” are appearing far less frequently than in previous decades; but rather than suggest that the concepts are also disappearing, one might equally assume that a more modern usage or lingo has replaced them.  For example, the world ‘collective’ has singularly negative connotations, resonant of Soviet-era agriculture and social engineering.  ‘Tribe’ is a word that is always on the fringes of PC, and most modern-day historians and social critics have either removed it for its lack of precision, or replaced it with ethnicity.  ‘Band together’ is very old-fashioned, and while Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ is often recalled, the idea of group solidarity is better expressed by ‘posse’, ‘crew’, or simply ‘brothers’.

A recent study cited by Brooks suggests that moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” have been used less and less frequency; as were words associated with moral excellence, like “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion”.  Again, I would argue that disuse may be more a factor of changing cultural expressions rather than a more fundamental change in attitudes. ‘Virtue’, for example, may have been replaced by ‘Do the right thing’ or ‘Man up’ or a thousand other expressions of respect; while ‘decency’ is too vague and general for the more precise demands of a very diverse, multicultural society.  I am not sure that ‘common decency’ would be understood today.  In the Victorian Age, when courtly values of decency – manners, politeness, respect for neighbors of a similar class – were understood, the term would definitely apply.  But has the concept of treating others decently disappeared?  I doubt it.  Although we might not like to descend from a Victorian moral throne to the inner-city, isn’t ‘disrespect’ an equally appropriate and apt word for the idea of treating people properly? A lack of Victorian decency and ‘dissing’ will both result in expulsion from the group.

The words “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” can be also seen as archaic phrases.  I read about evil in Kierkegaard, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Augustine, but infrequently in conversation.  I am fascinated by the concept of evil in Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Marlowe, and Machiavelli, but I do not expect to raise the issue at dinner parties.

More importantly than the words themselves, perhaps, is the context in which words have been used.  Shakespeare used the word ‘valor’ a lot and wrote about the principles that underlie it in many of his plays; but it is rare to see an unequivocally positive outcome.  Henry V was valorous, except for the fact that he led thousands of his men to death because of a tenuous political claim. Troilus and Hector debated honor and virtue, but the Trojan War went on endlessly because of the venality behind these ideas.  High principles were always promoted and debated in Greek and Roman times; and martyrdom (i.e. courage to face death for a just cause) was a common rallying cry for the murderous Crusades.

I think that the dire predictions of an erosion of community are ill-founded.  America is a dynamic, ever-changing country, and the configurations of community also change.  Although it is easy to pick on the electronic neighborhoods of Facebook and Twitter, these are, for better or worse communities; and if one did a search for ‘friend’, ‘chat room’, ‘group’, a not very surprising social bonding would be discovered.  New immigrant groups have very strong communities; and our country is becoming more and more ethnically diverse.  Koreans and Ethiopians, among others, have done well because of strong community ties.  We are still a churchgoing nation, and each of the many churches I have visited in the South are mini-communities with as much focus and integrity as any secular grouping.

Without a doubt, we have become more focused on individual enterprise as a nation; but this too is subject to the ebbs and flows of history. The individualism of the Google words is but an expression of the turning of the socio-political wheel.  We are casting off older versions of a liberal, statist, and government-ordered community and forming a new body politic with new dynamics and unusual potential.

So, I agree with Brooks that the word search does provide interesting insights into the way language is used; but I think it is too much to conclude a correlation between words and cultural shifts.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Male Power–Denying Women’s Desire For Children

There is an advertising campaign in Great Britain called Get Britain Fertile which has added fuel to the gender wars.  The campaign was designed innocently enough, for the sponsor - First Response, a pregnancy test company – simply wanted to promote their product by appealing to women in their 20’s and early 30s who, in reproductive terms, should be a receptive market.

According to research sponsored by the company, young women in their most fertile period (20s and early 30s) want to have children, but do not because “they haven’t found the right man”.  Anecdotal evidence provided by many female commentators, however, indicates that this response is merely a thinly-veiled expression of their frustration at men who refuse to have children at all.  In other words, men have a power over women that would make a feminist cringe.

Men, of course, have known this for a long time.  They have been back on their heels since the dawn of time because they can never really know who their children are.  They have always felt that Nature dealt them a bad hand, and they have had to spend time, energy, and otherwise useful resources in assuring paternity.  Shakespeare was obsessed with cuckoldry, and in Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Troilus and Cressida he describes the madness that jealousy can provoke.

Strindberg’s The Father is all about a man driven to madness by his manipulative wife who insinuates that he is not the father of their children.   All the kings in Shakespeare’s Histories are concerned with paternity, for succession, inheritance, and lineage are entirely dependent on it.  Their wives and the wives of royal pretenders fought like she-bears to promote their children and to exploit any weakness in the royal family tree.  Peasants were just as concerned about wifely fidelity, for they were not about to work their fingers to the bone for a bastard child, let alone pass on their meager holdings to him.

Men today still resort to female genital mutilation, infibulation (sewing the vagina shut), or simply locking women in when they leave the house in an attempt to assure fidelity and paternity.  Less authoritarian men are not immune and are always on guard for the casual but telling glance, the hand placed lightly on a shoulder, the overly fond remark, the unexplained gaps in routine.  It is exhausting. 

In the old days, children were necessary, so the vigilance was worth it.  Sons and daughters of peasants labored in the fields, tended the goats, carried the water; and the male offspring of the nobility assured the integrity and protection of their vast holdings.  Nowadays, children are more of a drain than anything.  A family certainly pays out thousands more than they get in return. Dutiful children who look after their aged parents are as scarce as hens’ teeth.

The sense of lineage is residual, not of any real, practical value.  We are happy when our children are successful, especially when they follow the path we have charted out for them; but other than a few pictures on the mantelpiece and some overblown stories about Harvard, children are a bad deal.
So it is quite logical that men choose not to be burdened with children; and now, in an ironic twist of fate, it is the women who want them not they.  The same Nature that gave women power over men when children were valuable, has given them a maternal urge to have children at a time when men could care less.

Here is where the concept of sunken costs of Economics 101 comes in.  A woman gets happily married to the man of her dreams.  They gambol and frolic in their 20s, both happily childless and able to enjoy life to the fullest.  Then the woman hits 30, and the biological clock starts ticking – not loudly, but definitely perceptibly.  By the time she is in her late 30s and her husband still refuses to have children, she has an economic choice to make. “I have invested so much in this marriage (sunken costs) that it pays to wait a few more years before jettisoning my husband”.  On the other hand, she opines, if I go solo now, finding a new mate will be difficult, and finding one who wants children almost impossible.

Men are gleeful at this situation and are happy that Fortune’s wheel has finally turned in their favor.  If their older wives leave them to find fertility, no problem.  They can always troll for younger, less demanding brides.  Nature has been generous in yet another way.  Men retain their physical allure far longer than women and have always been able to capture the attention of women many years their junior; and, in a still more interesting twist of Nature, men can reproduce well into their 80s…just in case they have a change of heart on the children thing.
Women have responded to this crisis by having children well into their 40s.  The NHS in Britain has revealed that births to women over 40 have risen by 15 percent in the last five years.  The NHS does not say with whom these women are having their babies, especially since their men have refused them for twenty years, so either they have finally convinced their mates (unlikely), have married a younger man (even more unlikely), or have opted for single motherhood (sperm bank donors since casual sex at 40 is iffy).
Those older women in their 40s who have had babies in the last five years are probably now realizing what a mistake they have made.  Although 40 is by no means old these days, it sure feels old when you are changing diapers all day, chasing a two-year old around, endlessly pushing playground swings, dealing with intemperate, volcanic tantrums not to mention the loss of yoga, bar time, and long walks on the beach.  Even worse, older mothers quickly find that their offspring are just hitting their teenage years when they are pushing 60.  Most parents barely survive the adolescence of their children, let alone those who should be thinking of retirement.
So, men are having their day. Having given a good comeuppance to feminism and gleeful at the turn of the screw, men are finally having their day.  After years of women this, women that, it is their turn to gloat.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

NGOs Are Part Of The Problem, Not The Solution

I was working in Rwanda a few years back, and had breakfast with two missionaries who were sent by their US-based church to help out with its relief efforts in the country.  The local church affiliate had set up a large soup kitchen designed to feed hungry mouths.

“I witnessed a miracle today”, said one of the women. “We prepared enough food to feed 200 children, but there were hundreds more who showed up at the church. In fact, all during the morning more and more children needed to be fed.  We knew that the food would run out and these poor, starving babies would go away hungry.

But every time I went over to supervise the kitchen, I saw the vats of food filled to the brim.  No matter how many children we fed, there was always a full pot.  God worked his wonders today.  Praise the Lord.”

Jill Filipovic, writing in The Guardian (5.19.13) is concerned about the ‘top-down’ approach of NGOs working in Haiti to provide humanitarian relief, and feels that a more collaborative approach with Haitians, taking advantage of their enterprise and good will would serve the country better.  There is far too much of a patronizing, we-know-what’s-best attitude among the international non-governmental community, and countries will never get on their feet unless help arrives from within.

The miracle observed by the two eager missionaries in Kigali was a good example of this arrogant, dismissive approach that characterizes most humanitarian and development work done by non-profit agencies.  Not only was The First Baptist Church doling out food indiscriminately to all comers regardless of need, it had no interest whatsoever in investing in the strategic social, economic, and educational programs initiated by the government and its private partners.  It was there to preach, convert, and organize.

Just like the soup kitchens of the Bowery during the Depression where bums had to sit through a Bible reading before they tucked into their gruel, so did the Rwandan families who lined up in the church courtyard.

“The most miraculous thing of all”, the missionary went on, “was the Biblical passage chosen by our pastor – the parable of the loaves and the fishes.”

I have a Jewish friend who was an international development consultant, and in the course of lining up new assignments, he visited one of the best-known and largest NGOs which was a conduit for USAID food assistance and program support.  It was also an avowedly Christian organization.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you ,Mr. Katz?, the Director began.  My friend said he was.

“So I will have to suppose that you haven’t taken Jesus as your Personal Savior”.  My friend said that no, he hadn’t.

“Well, I am sorry for you, Mr. Katz. We are a Christian organization whose mission……”  Here the Director went on not only to describe the missionary purpose of the organization, but to state the absolute rightness of it. There was not a hint of multiculturalism in his sermon, not a twinge of ecumenical sympathy, not a whit of of recognition of anything or anyone out of his Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist vision; and there was no room for Jews.

Religious organizations are no different in their self-serving purposes than any other.  A number of years ago I worked for a similarly large and well-known but secular NGO that started out as a relief organization but had moved into institutionalized school feeding programs which distributed US agricultural surplus commodities.  These programs were designed to provide nutritional supplementation as well as serve as a hook to get children to attend school.  Neither goal was met.  Parents never made dinner for children who got a school lunch, thus wrecking any hopes of a better diet.  Those marginal families for whom the value of a skimpy school lunch was nothing compared to the value of child labor never even considered sending their children to school. 

My organization was unconcerned. The purchase of the agricultural surplus is what mattered to the US government, and it was awash in food.  It couldn’t push the food out the door fast enough, and the profits made downstream (millers, Great Lake transport, East Coast docks, trans-oceanic shipping, American NGOs like mine) beneficiaries happy regardless of the impact on the ‘end user’ – school children.

One day at a staff meeting in Delhi, our Director said he wanted to talk about the inroads that other, smaller NGOs were making in the school feeding business.  For him, every pound of CSM (Corn meal, Soy flour, Milk powder) had a distinct value.  Our organization’s revenue and overhead was pegged to distribution numbers.  Every pound moved through a rival’s network meant less money for us.

One of my colleagues tried to allay the Director’s concerns by saying that a competitor, Children Are Precious, had some innovative programs underway, and we might like to think of collaboration.

The Director reddened.  He snorted, growled, and banged the table. “Fuck Children Are Precious”, he yelled. “I want those motherfuckers out of India, not around our goddam conference table”.

Many years later I worked for another large NGO; and by this time feeding programs except for emergency relief services, had by and large been phased out.  This NGO, although secular, had never lost its missionary zeal.  It was the first to line up outside the doors of USAID to be the first into one corrupt country after another.  I complained about its plans to open an office in Burma during the worst days of the military tyranny; and about its continued support to Zimbabwe during Robert Mugabe’s worst racist, imperial presidency.  “It’s all about the children”, the Director told me.  “Without us, they would perish”.

Of course it was not about the children, but the lavish USAID contracts which provided enough overhead to expand Washington offices near the White House, increase billable staff time, and gain increased international visibility. Despite the ‘Mission Statement’ of the organization which spoke of humanitarian gesture, participatory and collaborative work, and respect for racial and cultural diversity, the organization was known as one of the most cutthroat competitors in the business. “Chicanery and duplicity” would have been a good motto on their masthead along with “Children are our business”.

The point is that all NGOs are the same.  They are good, competitive, aggressive, American capitalists, and their non-profit status does nothing to temper that entrepreneurial spirit which so characterizes our country. 

A close friend worked for yet another major NGO which had recently expanded by leaps and bounds.  Because it was a non-profit organization, no officer or employee benefitted from this expansion, and in fact the services rendered could undoubtedly have been improved had the agency reined in its ambitions and focused on quality.  The CEO, however, would have none of this negative talk and went on to capture an ever-increasing share of the market.  Not only that, he moved into a new downtown DC building, covered the walls with impressive art work, and built media-ready, gleaming modern conference facilities.  The goal was to let the world know that the organization was a comer, a leader, and a can’t-lose contractor.  Money, territory, power, and influence reigned as supreme as if it was a Fortune 500 company.

Many of the Haitians I spoke to expressed the hope that the younger generation will reform the country, but emphasized that it will take major investments in youth and education. 

"In addition to teaching them to read and to write and to count, [young people] also need to learn to be self-sufficient and have good self-esteem," said Valencia Petion, a member of JCI Haiti and one of the founders of JCI Women. "We have to trust ourselves first. Lots of people have been told they are nothing. We must teach them to believe in themselves."

I worked in Haiti for over ten years under the Duvaliers and under their even more corrupt successors. Coup followed coup, corruption festered, poverty reached rock bottom, drug trading became a source of fabulous wealth for political leaders and their private supporters; and yet United States money kept pouring in.  Since international assistance is a political program, not a developmental one, Congress only wanted to show the flag, to exert some influence in this dysfunctional piece of the Caribbean, and to demonstrate compassion and support for the the Hemisphere’s first black republic.  The NGOs were the direct beneficiaries of American largesse. The country itself got worse and worse.  Whatever resources were poured in disappeared down mysterious sluices and rat holes.  The people never benefitted.  The earthquake was a disaster, and eventually Haiti will get back to normal – i.e. a corrupt, impoverished country with very little hope for anything.  The infighting, venality, and competitiveness of the NGOs certainly doesn’t help; but they have always been this way, and the feeding frenzy of open-ended government contracts just makes them worse.

I never so more excitement, esprit de corps, energy, and enthusiasm as when a devastating typhoon hit an Asian country.  My office was a beehive of activity.  Young, idealistic men and women who had joined the NGO to help the poor and the miserable, but who had spent years laboring over budgets, contracts, and reports, were now ecstatic.  This is what they had signed up for. The NGO was even more delighted than its employees.  Every tent, spade, bucket, blanket, and mosquito net had Overhead written on it, and the more that could be shipped, the more revenue for the agency.  It was a development organization’s version of Christmas.

While it is nice to recognize the positive spirit of young people in countries like Haiti, there only way out is to get out.  It, like in many countries of Africa, will continue to be a cesspool of corruption, kleptomania, and indifference.  NGOs and their USAID sponsors are part of the problem, not the solution. They give money and credibility to authoritarian, predatory regimes; and because their programs have been designed in Washington by interest groups and do-good lobbyists who have no idea about local conditions, they are doomed to failure.  All should go.  Countries should be left to sink or swim – to rid themselves of corruption, open themselves up to democratic transparency, and become eligible to borrow on international capital markets; or to be destroyed in a violent, eventual political apocalypse.

After more than 40 years in the ‘development’ business, the system has gotten even more ineffectual, more political, and more obviously wrong. Dismantle it, get out, and be done with it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

GOP Success–Attack, Attack, Attack

Most liberals and ‘progressives’ are incensed by what they see as Republicans’ unfounded, virulent, and intemperate attacks on the President for derelictions of duty regarding Benghazi, the IRS, and AP snooping. Nixon was far worse. There is nothing there, they say, and these new attacks are nothing more than a continuation of GOP single-minded attempts to discredit, damage, and defeat Obama regardless of the veracity or importance of their charges.  The Republican reign in the House has been nothing more than a unified, unwavering campaign to bring him down, regardless of the cost to the American people. Even the affairs of state – the economic recovery, unemployment, immigration, North Korea, and Syria – are addressed with the same animus. Screed, obstruction, and invective have replaced reasonable discourse and collaborate decisions.

All true.  The Republicans have played a political hardball not seen in American politics for some time, and despite their electoral losses last November, they feel they have a winning strategy.  By the time they finish with him, they say, Obama will be a bleeding mess; and even his die-hard followers – blacks, Hispanics, and women – will be disgusted with the failure of a weak, vacillating, and spineless President.

On the other hand, where are the Democrats?  Why are the Republicans the only ones who launch savage, scurrilous attacks?  Why don’t we see rabid, drooling Democratic attack dogs? Why have Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity no liberal counterparts?  Al Franken’s Air America was a total disaster, and Bill Maher – the most outspoken and outrageous critic of what he sees as the sanctimonious, duplicitous, and morally bankrupt Right – reaches relatively few households.

Liberals find all this right-wing bombast distasteful.  In their on-the-one-hand-on-the-other world, there is no room for absolute judgment.  Lower taxes?  Well, not really, especially when you consider the dollar, QE2, and the Euro….Slashing spending?  Certainly some cutting is called for….Health care? Yes, the tangle of red tape, predatory insurance companies, and small business concerns are issues, but…..

Republicans are uniquely and resolutely on message – on every issue, all the time, and in orchestrated unison.  A lock-step that rivals any jackbooted military high-stepping. They understand the American public far better than Democrats do.  Fundamentalist Christians make up over half the population.  The Bible is the only reference book they need to guide their political decisions.  Huge swaths of the country are poor, barely literate, and awash in conspiracy theories.  Rage against Obama, Washington, and the unnamed, faceless international socialist cabals is everywhere. These marginalized, illogical, and desperate voters don’t want to hear reasoned, logical arguments.  They already bloody know what the problem is, and want action - not another round of pointy-headed think-tank deliberation.

When Republican demagogues hammer away at Obama just as Baptist preachers bang on every Sunday about sin, vice, and moral corruption, they have a ready-made, receptive audience.  ‘Red meat’ is a tepid metaphor for the crazed demands of this Republican constituency.  They want blood – Obama’s blood – and they salivate over the slashing, merciless attacks of their politicians.  Obama is Beelzebub, the Devil incarnate, a rider of the Apocalypse ready to bring down America.

Can anyone imagine the new darlings of the Left like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (MA) launching into a wild-eyed, spittle-spewed tirade against anyone?  Or the inveterately reasonable Bill Moyers, another ‘progressive’ darling, going nuclear and raging like a demented street-corner preacher against the depredations of Republicans?  Of course not.

Take Obamacare, now thought by many to contribute to rather than to solve America’s health problems.  It is the perfect storm of bad characters – the rapacious, predatory, and greedy insurance industry; the self-serving, venal, and hopelessly incompetent federal bureaucracy; and narrow-minded Southern governors and their lackey legislators. Presented in reams of incomprehensible pages of guidelines and instructions, Obamacare becomes more of a liability every time a loyalist stands up and tries to defend it.

The Republican response?  Simple.  Socialized medicine, government gone wild, deprivation of individual choice, and a neutering of the private sector.  Who do you think will win this debate?

Pundits reflecting on the results of the last election say that the new demographics of America will force the Republicans’ hand.  There are simply more Democratic core voters in the country, deployed in electorally important states, so no matter how angry and aggressive Republicans can be, they are being outnumbered.  Thoughtful, rational, ‘progressive’ ideas and policies will rule the day.

I don’t think so. The time is over for automatic constituencies; and the time when black and Latino voters start thinking before they pull the Democratic lever is well nigh. The days of entitlement, government largesse, and political patronage are ending in poor neighborhoods; and sooner rather than later marginalized inner-city families are going to wake up and realize that far from helping them, decades of patronizing liberal programs have done them a disservice.  As more and more individuals emerge from the ghetto and begin to make it in mainstream America, they will vote more in line with majority norms and ideals, and will be more susceptible to arguments about individualism, opportunity, and patriotism.

These new entrants into middle America may not become red meat Republicans, but they will increasingly subscribe to the conservative values that have always been the bedrock of American society.

In other words, the Republicans have only to devise a second script – one less strident and accusatory in tone than the red meat version, and more upbeat and patriotic. Hispanics are the future of America, Republicans will say, because they subscribe to the American principles of family, hard work, religions, and righteousness; and their path to wealth and success will be thwarted by retrograde Democratic policies. 

These new Republicans will be no different from their redneck cousins – they will not be satisfied with liberal doubletalk, cant, and prevarication.  They want the truth in five simple phrases…And they will get it.

So, more power to the Republicans for having devised a winning strategy, for having gotten Obama on the ropes, and for forging ahead with the same cavalry that has won previous battles.  There were a few weeks of hand-wringing by the sissies of the Party after the election, but the macho males dispelled any doubts about their agenda. They are winning on gun control, health care, deficit reduction, and immigration.  They may not be right, but they are winning; and in American politics that is all that matters.