Friday, 31 December 2010

Top 10 of 2010—New York City (and State)

What’s New Year’s without a Top Ten list? Everyone else is creating one, so here’s my Top Ten New York Developments of 2010.

#10. Meltdown of the Accidental Governor. David Paterson is a poor boob and grew up in an over-privileged, Democratic machine household in Harlem, leading to major cluelessness. Like when he used his office to run interference for a thug bodyguard facing a battering charge. For that alone Paterson deserves the ignominy of forced retirement. Then when the state’s budget was melting down, he spent hours memorizing his state-of-the-state speech to impress us with how clever blind people are instead of figuring out how to keep the damn place afloat. What used to be called ‘handicaps’ can be inspiring in public figures, but unfortunately you have to overcome them, not be seen to flop as a result of them.

That said, Paterson almost redeemed himself in the waning days of his happenstance regime by doing a few right things, like his pardons of long-term but undocumented New York residents facing deportation for the equivalent of a pot bust. He also signed into law other good measures like the dismantling of the horrible Rockefeller drug laws and occasionally reminded us how nice it is not to be ruled by Republicans. We’re glad to be rid of him, but in retrospect the guy didn’t deserve to be elevated to his Peter Principle level of incompetence.

Parallel to that major disappointment was. . .

#9. Resuscitation of Eliot Spitzer as cable TV attack dog. Despite the ostensible air of chastened wise man and his vaguely hangdog posture, Spitzer on cable is just mean old Eliot back in true form. Seeing him lambaste easy targets like Muslims who don’t toe the Zionist line is a reminder that the guy isn’t much of a human being and was only useful when he sharpened his knives for the Wall Street gang, the same one that probably engineered his precipitous tumble. Too bad state attorney general is not a lifetime appointment—what fun we’d have had if Spitzer were still in that job when AIG and Goldman were looting the federal treasury. Who knows, Obama might not have been able to shovel trillions into his banker friends’ pockets with Eliot around. Instead, he’s another broadcast bobble-head screaming at us 24/7. Ho hum.

But that was nothing compared to . . .

#8. Intentionally Provoked Mass Dementia over the lower Manhattan mosque. This total non-story (notice its complete disappearance once the election was over) was and is a disgrace that will live through the ages. It also may augur very ugly events as yet to be lived through—let us not pray but rather act so that we don’t witness some sort of Kristallnacht down the line. But the spirit behind this racist campaign is precisely that which poisoned Europe 80 years ago, yet another reminder that bipeds are the same the world over and given a quarter of a chance will succumb to viciousness and racism without blinking. Society, decent society anyway, exists to restrain these evil impulses, Thatcherite mantras notwithstanding.

Related to which are. . .

#7. Implosion and final, crushing, humiliating defeat for Rick Lazio who thought he would run for governor against Andrew Cuomo. Lazio tried to turn himself into the state’s First Racist by running TV ads to denounce the skeery downtown mosque. Inexplicably, this was considered far too tame for the Republican primary voters who promptly brought us. . .

#6. A Complete, Spittle-flecked Lunatic as candidate for governor. Carl Palladino joined the throng of Tea Party wackos like Angle in Nevada and O’Donnell in Delaware who saved the Democrats’ undeserving asses in November by being so out to lunch that even fat white people in SUVs couldn’t stand them. Palladino got bad press by trying to punch out a tabloid reporter and gay-bashing in front of a gaggle of honking rabbis. But when he tried to get serious, he looked even worse, thus illustrating how much the Teabagger scene is comprised of incoherent babbling that belongs in bars with sawdust on the floors. Luckily, New York voters have not completely lost their minds just yet and on election day handed the tough guy his ass in a pair of lace panties.

Meanwhile, life goes on, and the subway fare goes up due to . . .

#5. Continued Beggaring of the MTA. The New York public transit system, where one third of all public transport rides in the entire country are taken, is the beating heart of the city. Without it, the famed metropolis would be a shaggy dump like Phoenix or a bleak wilderness choked by vast, metallic suburbs. Despite its key role in our well-being and in sustaining the city’s unique cultural and commercial life, the transit system continues to be deprived of oxygen—that is, cash—by the state and the feds, and fares went up yet again just yesterday for the upteenth time. Inflation in subway tickets has now reached 100% just in the six years I have been in New York. When the transit workers went on strike in 2005, you never heard the end of how awful they were to disrupt our lives. But the ongoing hacking away at the city’s infrastructure by our ruling elite gets barely a notice.

Speaking of our ruling elite. . .

#4. Recession Slams City. . . unequally. Boarded up storefronts were a rarity when I first moved here—now they’re everywhere. The unemployment rates unsurprisingly vary widely from uptown to downtown, and the usual victims are taking it on the chin again. For a while, it was amusing to see the real estate offices disappear overnight and the gouging commercial landlords suddenly find themselves with empty spaces after thinking the party would go on forever. But the city also runs on finance, and since the banks are back, spending on consumer luxuries is brisk. It’s possible to miss the extent of human suffering caused by the plutocrats as the employed continue to hobble down the streets of Soho fully burdened by their freshly creased shopping bags.
But nonetheless, it’s rough at the top. . .

#3. Rust Pokes through Bloomberg Sheen. Ever since his fist-in-rectal-compartment re-election squeaker in 2009 despite the $100 million he dropped to rub his wonderfulness in our faces, our snarky mayor has struggled against the gradual appearance of his clay feet. His phony apolitical/master technocrat stance is looking increasingly unpersuasive after news of a mega-normous payroll scandal, and Bloomie now has to defend his new bimbo educational commissioner just as people slowly awaken to the charter/ privatization scam Bloomberg and the Obama team are running on us, to the cheers of the Wall Street Journal.

And on an even brighter side. . .

#2. Horrible Pedro Espada Leaves State Senate, Heads to Sing Sing. A perfect creep meeting his just demise is joy to behold. There’s no guarantee that this heart-warming tale will conclude with anything close to the public drawing and quartering merited, but the case brought by Cuomo as A-G has a good chance of sticking against this personification of Albany corruption. Even before the indictments came down, Espada was crushed in his re-election campaign despite all the usual dirty tricks. Hail, bipeds of the Bronx! You saw through the smoke, refused the bribes and bounced this sucker out of your difficult lives.

And finally. . .

#1. New York City, still a goddam marvel, just is. Every cliché about the place is true, including the tiresome narcissism of its residents who, like me, never tire of expressing their good fortune to live in it.

Monday, 27 December 2010

“A Black Christmas after all”

That’s what a guy said to me as we were fighting our way through the horizontal snows yesterday in downtown Manhattan. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone play on those standard clichés, and that wish for a snowy Yule is certainly one that could be defended on objective grounds, unlike ‘black humor’ or ‘a dark mood’.

The double standard, however, remains intact in the sphere of criminal injustice and prisons, which is certainly a gloomy environment as well as an overwhelming black one. Our bumbling governor did the right thing and commuted the sentence of a guy who should never have ended up in jail, charged with occupying suburbia while black. John White (yes, yes) blasted a teenager off his property a while back and killed him, and although gunplay is not my reaction of choice to rowdy kids, let us do a thought experiment: if a gang of black teens were chasing a white kid up to his doorstep with threats of violence, would a white homeowner be facing charges to have shooed them off with a shotgun?

Paterson is soon to be our ex-governor, for which thanks may be offered to Lord Jesus or whomever. He characteristically handled the incident badly and then apologized, leaving everyone pissed off. But Paterson is so irrelevant it didn’t even generate a decent scandal, and the tabloids hardly noticed.

However, the White case does recall the Christmas, 1984 Bernard Goetz subway shooting, in which Goetz fired away at a group of black kids and immediately became a city-wide hero, at least to some. He got off with a weapons charge, and as can be seen in this Time magazine cover on him, generating ample discussion of ‘violent crime’ (which Goetz probably feared) and attacks on the courts for even charging him. Check out this account of him at if you have any doubts.

The defenders of the slain white teenager in the black White case made a lot of noise about how he wasn’t a racist and that therefore, White should be punished for shooting him. So running after a lone black kid in a gang right up to his doorstep and shouting ‘nigger’ at him is not racist. Go figure. Even today, the Long Island newspaper recalling the case shows that 57% of its readers think Paterson was wrong to let White out.

I guess it’s relevant to recall this double standard now that Bradley Manning is being psychologically tortured for spilling government secrets while Dick Cheney and Lewis Libby, who arguably did far worse, are enjoying a bountiful holiday season. Cheney and Libby maliciously exposed an active CIA agent trying to spy on nuclear weapons proliferation, and Libby—who was caught—was pardoned by George Bush for doing so. Obama then pardoned all the Bush-era torturers without even investigating their crimes, but he doesn’t seem too upset about the continuation of torture in different U.S. venues and with other excuses.

We’re a long way from a true Black Christmas, but who knows, we may get there yet.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Further thoughts on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

My work involves listening to people put their intimate behavior, including sex, into words, which is not as easy as it sounds. Once you get beyond the five Ws of Who, What, When etc., questions along the lines of, So what, Why and Would you do it again? are not so easy either to formulate or to answer coherently.

In reviewing hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews done in the mid-2000s during the heyday of this peculiar policy—which would never have worked during the debate over desegregation of the armed forces since being black isn’t so easy to dissemble—I am struck by how often the metaphor of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was used by our subjects, mostly gay-identified men, to describe a curious silence about HIV status that many said had become routine.

A lot of these guys’ disease avoidance strategies included a variety of techniques to determine whether a prospective partner was HIV-positive or not. These approaches did not always, and in fact frequently did NOT, include asking. There was something disagreeable and mood-slaughtering about bringing up the topic of what to do about disease.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that a guy wouldn’t ask his partner about HIV, to which I always inquire, Did you? The last time you had sex, did you spruce up your seduction routine by saying, Oh and by the way, Do you have a deadly disease that you might give me later if I’m not careful? It’s easier to tell other people what they should be doing than to follow one’s own sensible instructions especially when out Looking for Love, however we define that.

My impression is that the introduction by Clinton of hiding and avoiding as official policy had a spillover effect in the realm of intimate behavior. The military did not invent the closet, but the policy’s shorthand phrase reaffirmed that pretending and avoiding was proper and reasonable, that it was respectful to cover up and dangerous to tell the truth.

It can hardly surprise us that these habits should not be confined to the barracks.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Pretend and protect

Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is finally dead, 20 years after Bill Clinton permitted the religious right to turn its vindictive gaze on gay and lesbian soldiers. The policy was always a shambles and a fraud. It achieved the precise opposite of its promise: that prudent silence would be respected and that no one who kept his sexual orientation to him or herself would be bothered.

Almost immediately after enactment, gay advocates reported that the military services were engaged in a frantic witch hunt to root out suspected homos; thousands of lives were wrecked. Even when the country desperately needed language and other specialists after 9/11, the vigilantes continued to probe the private lives of the troops, looking for signs of forbidden, same-sex amours.

It was guaranteed that plenty would be found given the enormous appeal of the same-sex lifestyle typical of military service. All the intrusive campaigns to pretend that there were no fags and dykes in uniform were pointless and doomed to fail, but the pretense was important to preserve the military mystique and provide plenty of red meat to Christian fanatics in military careers.

‘There are no homosexuals in the Navy’, said a gay acquaintance of mine in the 1970s after serving two years himself and, by his own description, ‘fucking everything that moved’ during his posting to the Philippines. DA/DT didn’t change that, but it did energize the commissars eager to harass those whom they suspected. Like all thought control systems, it could not wipe out homosexuality or dissident impulses, but it could suppress and pervert them and terrorize people into neurotic doublethink.

Obama will get some credit for the abolition of DA/DT, which he does not deserve. The true heroes of the repeal are its victims and the many advocates, from the late Leonard Matlovich to Dan Choi, who refused to be silenced and refused to give up during decades of abuse from the reactionaries and weaseling non-support from their supposed Democratic allies.

In typical fashion Obama stood aside while the social forces favoring repeal gathered force and overcame their adversaries. Things were ‘trending in the direction’ of repeal, Obama notoriously commented when asked why there had been no movement on the issue for the first two years of his presidency. As Maureen Dowd commented: Really inspiring, dude.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, one of Obama’s admired predecessors, who used his first days in office to fire union members with a stroke of the pen, Obama was unwilling to take unilateral action. Instead, he waited until the uniformed services themselves had grown tired of the failed policy and allowed it to collapse.

There is nothing admirable about the way the country has shucked off this disaster; all the political leadership has played an appalling role, from smiling Bill Clinton who creating it when he signed off on official discrimination in 1993 to demented John McCain and his strutting colleagues now eager to collect their revenge.

The men and women who demanded their dignity and rights and battled them all into submission should not share the achievement with anybody.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Wheeler-dealers of fortune

The completely loathesome Pedro Espada, Jr., the outgoing Democratic Party leader of the New York state senate (yes, really) bit the pavement today in a richly deserved appearance at federal court. Espada [below right] & son are charged with embezzling scandalous sums from a Bronx health center dad helped found and then proceeded to loot for a decade. It’s too bad prosecutors took so many years to put an end to this clown’s shameless career, but at least they got around to it eventually.

Seeing the corrupt crash and burn is essential to the workings of democracy and, may I add, to capitalism, a detail largely forgotten by political ‘leaders’ of both parties these days as they maneuver to carry hod for the banker oligopoly. In the economics pages and blogs, which I read with great interest, there are more and more pleadings for someone, somewhere, to start slapping some subpoenas on the megacrooks who drove the economy into the ground and brought great suffering to millions.

Instead, the only criminal sent up the river from Wall Street is Bernie Madoff, who committed the highly punishable crime of stealing from the rich. But when Wall Street types themselves and a goodly portion of the economics profession are raising alarms about the future, it suggests something is deeply amiss.

Turning the capital markets into casinos has been great fun for the new ruling elite who now dominate our lives. The hurricane of financial manipulation will continue unchecked until the next meltdown, and the powerful will enjoy themselves immensely, thanks to the Republican mafia and its principal enabler, Barack O.

Now we have the hilarious spectacle of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, another silly exercise in ‘bipartisanship’, now turning into a cat-foodfight along partisan lines. One cannot be amazed at anything these days, but the Republican idea of excising words like ‘Wall Street’ and ‘shadow banking’ from the consensus document is setting a new record for insanity, only surpassed by Obama’s latest Alzheimer moment in creating the damn bipartisan commission in the first place.

The estimable Yves Smith waxed particularly eloquent on the subject this morning:

Lordie, the Big Lie is with us in force.

The intent [of the Repub rewrite] is pretty transparent: to discredit an effort at fact-finding into the roots of the crisis by making it appear partisan and launching an alternative narrative to muddy the waters. And the reason is clear: . . . it appears that even lesser forms of criticism of the banksters must be sandbagged. . . .

This pathetic development shows how deeply this country is in thrall to lobbyists. But these so-called commissioners, who are really no more than financial services minions out to misbrand themselves as independent, look to have overplayed thier hand. This stunt shows more than a tad of desperation on the part of banks and their operatives in their excessive efforts block any remotely accurate, and therefore critical, report on the industry.

Perversely, this development may be a positive indicator on several fronts. . . . It may suggest that the banking industry is feeling more cornered than its continued high-handed posture might suggest. I continue to receive reports from industry insiders confirming that the biggest banks in the US are insolvent. The only sensible resolution of the mortgage mess involves deep principal mods, which will force the top four banks to write down their second mortgage books, blowing big holes in their balance sheets, and raising numerous, embarrassing questions (how could they and the Treasury defend paying back the TARP, much the less the level of 2009 and 2010 bonuses?)

In other words, the banks may be worried about the possibility of a backlash that might actually be effective. But they are already too late to stop the inevitable. They refuse to halt the juggernaut, a doomsday machine that continues to grind up families and communities and saddle innocent bystanders with the costs of higher taxes, unemployment, sagging infrastructure, and poor prospects for their children. This next two years may be the last window to leash and collar a parasitic financial services industry. If the authorities fail yet again, the cost will be both the rule of law and our unwritten social compact. If you tear asunder structures that fundamental, expect to reap a whirlwind.

I perversely hope Congress succeeds and undermines all restrictions on the bankers so that the next debacle occurs sooner rather than later. It will be great fun to watch the free marketeers destroy the goose that laid the golden egg as corruption, hustling and double-dealing spread far and wide and poison business transactions, legal contracts and even property titles a la Foreclosure-gate. Eventually, no one will be able to get anything done without the kinds of wholesale bribery, kickbacks and payoffs to the mighty that make China, Nigeria and Azerbaijan such great places to live. When it’s too late, these same jokers will weep copious tears for the capitalist marketplace they were unwilling to preserve and protect.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

DoH sucks

The usual excuses are pouring forth from our city health department about why they chose to revert to an early ‘80s-style HIV scare campaign to reawaken concern about getting infected. ‘I am completely comfortable with what we put out here’, intoned one Monica Sweeney of the HIV prevention unit in response to the chorus of indignation from community agencies and many HIV-positive individuals. Well, as long as you’re comfortable, Monica, that’s what’s important.

This is reality, she also reminded us, referring to the images of young guys suffering bone degeneration, getting soft in the head from dementia and a full litany of AIDS horrors. So since it’s ‘true’, we can’t criticize the communicational aspects. It’s as if the department pines for the old days when guys got really sick—that sure got everyone’s attention!

I sympathize with the health bureaucrats who have to deal with the steadily growing cost of treating tens of thousands of New Yorkers with expensive medications while the roster of the newly infected continues to grow. Precautions in the sexual arena haven’t gone out the window, but I can attest to the existence of a large hope-for-the-best gay subculture where caution is no longer the default position. I applaud the concern and the interest in understanding how this shift came about.

But it’s another sign of our creepily reactionary times that the department is taking this step backward without even consulting its supposed community ‘partners’. Sure, they held focus groups where, predictably, participants will react to sensational images that ‘they’—meaning those other guys who run risks—should be forced to see.

But the campaign will backfire in one important way: it will reinforce the current sexual apartheid that exists in gay circles here wherein guys no longer adopt universal precautions to avoid HIV infection but simply avoid anyone suspected to be HIV-positive. The hook-up ads are full of demands for ‘ddf’, meaning ‘drug and disease free’ for prospective partners—that means, don’t have HIV if you want to get laid.

The obvious implication is that once you assure me that you don’t have the virus, we can then screw merrily without tiresome old condoms. But this, in a city where one in five gay men is already HIV-infected, is not exactly a winning strategy. The health department’s ads will reinforce this dangerous trend by deepening the fear of the disease without illuminating the gratifying psychological tricks guys play on themselves in pursuit of intimacy and sexual satisfaction.

And the HIV-positive return to their old pariah status—stay away, you can’t be loved. That will certainly encourage responsible behavior.

One can’t be too surprised by this strange relapse from a city bureaucracy run by the monarchy of money. Bloomberg’s team may be encouraged to think it can and should apply the same techniques to HIV that were used in the city’s anti-smoking campaign: graphic imagery and heavy restrictions on behavior like smoke-free bars.

But sex ain’t in the same ballpark, and one doesn’t say goodbye to HIV like an ex-smoker putting down the cigarette pack. Would the city try to combat obesity by putting pictures of fat people on TV and showing how gross their lives are?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Apartheid wall grows higher

Obama is not just giving away the store to the Republicans here at home; he’s also busy making sure the Israelis don’t take him seriously either.

His Mr Reasonable stance is having a bracingly civilized effect on that outpost of modern bipedism in the Levant, as outlined in yesterday’s Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper:

Top rabbis move to forbid renting homes to Arabs, say ‘Racism originated in the Torah’

A number of leading rabbis who signed on to a religious ruling to forbid renting homes to gentiles—a move particularly aimed against Arabs—defended their decision on Tuesday with the declaration that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.

Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed on to the ruling, which comes just months after the chief rabbi of Safed initiated a call urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.

Signatories include the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, Carmiel, Gadera, Afula, Nahariya, Herzliya, Nahariya and Pardes Hannah, among a number of other cities.

‘We don’t need to help Arabs set down roots in Israel’, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Beit El settlement, said on Tuesday. Aviner explained that he supported the move for two reasons: one, a Jew looking for an apartment should get preference over a gentile; and two, to keep the growing Arab population from settling too deeply.

‘Racism originated in the Torah’, said Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, who heads the Ashdod Yeshiva. ‘The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel. This is what the Holy One, Blessed Be He, intended and that is what the [sage] Rashi interpreted’.

He added that he did not see the move as racist so much as segregationist. ‘The world is so big, and the State of Israel is small that God intended it for the people of Israel and the whole world covets it. That is the injustice’.

The original ruling by one rabbi, which sparked the racial solidarity campaign, called on good Jews to refuse to rent to an Arab and for the entire community to shun anyone who dares to do so, including ‘denying him the right to read from the Torah until he goes back on this harmful deed’.

At least in Israel such a blatant manifestation of racism—called by that name even by its perpetrators—merits criticism and denunciation. But can anyone imagine the Congressional Black Caucus, so righteous and militant when it came to South African apartheid, daring to issue a squeak over this one?

An Israeli parliamentarian, Ilan Ghilon, immediately called for the rabbis (who are salaried, state employees) to be canned, saying ‘We are witnessing an epidemic of racism and xenophobia, and we must act firmly’. Another, Ahmed Tibi, called the letter ‘a mass crime by a group of racist rabbis who should be given an intensive course in Jewish history’. The Israeli mayor of Haifa said it was a ‘desecration’.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for similar words from a U.S. senator, especially including the ‘liberals’ from New York State.

We can also imagine how U.S. commentators would react if Iran’s mullahs were to issue similar guidance calling on Muslims to discriminate against non-believers.

However, despite the far more vigorous debate in Israel itself over its steady descent into overt apartheid, I see no reason to think that the tendencies will be reversed given the carte blanche offered to Israel by our first black president. Empowering and enabling racism—despite pious bleatings about the ‘peace process’—guarantees that further racist acts will follow.

Obama is expert at dressing up his total caving to the most reactionary elements as part of a clever, long-range plan to reverse the tendencies some years down the road. As in his bizarre collapse in the face of Republican obstinacy and obstructionism on tax cuts for the rich, Obama operates as if he were a monarch with a 20-year reign ahead of him.

But his insufferable appeals to the ‘long view’ and the need for patience to bring about ‘change’ reflect a psyche going off the rails in the time-honored fashion of politicians intoxicated with a sense of their own exceptionalism.

Meanwhile, not everyone is sitting around waiting for Obama to make water out of wine. Three more countries, this time in Latin America, announced they were recognizing a Palestinian state, thereby poking another tiny hole in Israel’s long-term legitimacy.

The gesture is not tremendously significant, and it isn’t the first time that minor states have annoyed Israel in this fashion. But Brazil is one of the three (along with Argentina and Uruguay), a country determined to play a larger role outside its immediate sphere of influence.

It was Brazil, along with Turkey, that arranged a possible compromise deal with Iran over the latter’s nuclear industry, an initiative promptly shot down by the U.S. without further ado as Obama & Co. much prefer to continue rattling the sabers without interference. But the Turkish aid flotilla followed soon thereafter with violent consequences and the demise of one of Israel’s key strategic alliances.

Our founding fathers thought they could kick the can of slavery down the road and did so. But the country did not escape its original sin, and neither will Israel. The bunker mentality now reigning there will not protect its inhabitants in the long run, and much human suffering will ensue before the situation inevitably blows up.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Revenge of Santa Claus

It’s finally turned wintry here after a long, leisurely and very pleasant autumn, and those Christmas decorations no longer look peculiar. My thoughts turn to those many Christian celebrations in Latin America designed to imitate northern Europe’s festivals of light despite the little detail that December hosts the longest, most sun-filled days of the year in the southern hemisphere.

During the bleak Pinochet years in Chile, we would often repair downtown to watch the very regular dust-ups between citizens yearning for democracy and the agents of the military state. In late springtime, i.e. early December, the plazas would fill up with small groups who might risk singing the national anthem in public, which would merit a police baton or worse while the evangelical preachers harangued passers-by (those heroic defenders of God’s will were never molested by the professional assassins).

Soon the tear gas would begin to fly, and the freelance Santa Clauses, who had set up in the main squares dressed for a Dutch winter to bounce toddlers on their laps for tips, would be dashing not through the snow nor in a one-horse open sleigh but on foot into a chaotic downtown mall in 90-degree heat, tears running down their false white whiskers.

Once the festivities were underway, and the riot police and their plainsclothes goons were fully activated, the water cannons racing up and down the thoroughfares and the whole downtown section obscured by a haze of tear gas, lemon venders would promptly appear shouting their odd wares. Because a taste of citric acid neutralizes the effects of tear gas on the mucous membranes, a slice of lemon suddenly commanded a quarter each, and no commercial opportunity would be missed by the hawkers as they put Milton Friedman’s philosophy to work in their modest way while Pinochet’s economists applied it in theirs.

But although Chile and all of Latin America have looked to Europe and gobbled up American-style mass culture for decades, there also has been movement in the other direction. In fact, we remain saddled by the social experiment we imported from the South after it had been tested out under optimum conditions—of dictatorship.

Chile has long been a social laboratory, and the worship of free markets got a head start there in the mid-1970s with Pinochet’s gorilla state so beloved of Nixon, Kissinger and their CIA pals. While we were still enjoying the waning days of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, the Chileans were showing the world how to crush labor unions, privatize public services and ram a monetarist paradise down the helpless throats of the destitute. Britain’s Thatcher and our own two-party duopoly were quick studies.

And so authoritarian cowboy capitalism became a non-traditional export along with copper, grapes and the final remnant stocks of Chilean sea bass. With Reagan’s smiling salesmanship the white working class bought into the new Ayn Randian vision; government became the whipping boy, and cash the king. We live with that legacy today, so while it is fun to laugh at the slavish consumption of American mass culture by Third World wannabees, the last laugh is really on us.

Thanks to the Reaganite legacy, we no longer believe that the role of the state is to succor the weak and vulnerable and limit the greed of the rich and rapacious. Instead, we glorify individuality in its multitudinous manifestations from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump, gaze awestruck at obscene wealth, sneer at the vulnerable and take pleasure in seeing ‘losers’ trampled underfoot.

The latest example of the triumph of elitist contempt for anyone not in the club is Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of a silly magazine bimbo as Commissioner of Education.

In a sane world the appointment of Cathleen Black, a Hearst Corporation executive in charge of overseeing Seventeen magazine and Good Housekeeping, as educational anything would be a bad joke. At best Black would be permitted a gig as a flashy, superficial media advisor, in charge of handing out invitations for reporters to clamber onto Bloomberg’s private jet and rub elbows with his important guests. It’s an insult to the thousands of struggling kids and their parents that this glitzy suit is taking over the nation’s largest school system with absolutely no credentials other than wealth and connections.

Black has no educational background, doesn’t even hold the required master’s degree and required a waiver from the state to be permitted to assume the job. Bloomberg, in his typically high-handed fashion, pulled her out of a sack with no prior warning and, of course, no consultation with anybody.

The idea that a rich babe with her kids in private school, lucrative links to Coca-cola (in a city being crushed by the obesity/diabetes epidemic), and a net worth greater than the combined income of an entire city block should suddenly be in charge of the city’s creaking public school system during a huge crisis is a scandal.

But it’s all of a piece with the steady erosion of the idea that we should provide free, public education for all children in pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of a shared social experience for future citizens. Problems in education? Oh, that’s the fault of teachers and their nefarious unions, and the answer is to smash them and pump up the charter school movement, aided and abetted by propaganda like Waiting for Superman, Oprah’s new film toy, in which little kids compete for something they should have a right to receive automatically.

Diane Ravitch took down the contemporary unwisdom emerging from that film in the New York Review of Books, but she’s a voice in the wilderness while Obama’s neoliberal team faithfully carries out the right-wing education program—pretty much consistent with his role in our lives, i.e., to deepen and consolidate the Bush legacy.

And so the Chileans’ revenge is complete: they gave up their dream of a more just society 37 years ago and then again 17 years later after the ouster of Pinochet left the system intact. After decades of showing the world what they have to do, we get to have a taste of our own national medicine—perhaps it’s time to be fitted for a colorful poncho.