Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Hustling then and now

Oscar season, now past but still fresh in memory, reminds me of non-winner American Hustle from last year because that tawdry tale has just replayed itself in British politics. Hustle was based on the notorious 1970s ABSCAM FBI sting operation that netted several politicians and the Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, en bouffant. It was based on an elaborate and quite incredible scheme cooked up by the FBI to entrap dirty politicians with suitcases of cash.

The difference is that the ABSCAM defendants of yesteryear faced indictments and charges and even jail and certainly public opprobrium whereas the British pols snared—one foreign minister each from the two main UK parties, Straw (Labour) and Rifkind (Tory)—proudly assert that they did nothing wrong and have “a clear conscience.” On the latter point, I do not doubt their word for one minute. Politicians for Hire, the documentary produced by the Daily Telegraph reporters on their escapades as deep-pocketed businessmen from Honk Kong shopping for influence, will be aired later today on British TV. Yum yum.

In the 50 years that have elapsed between the US version of mock-political bribery and the recent one staged by the British reporters, profound shifts in our beliefs about governance have evolved in both countries. Whereas once it would be shameful to accept payoffs and peddle influence for one’s corporate contacts, it is now considered not only normal but almost virtuous. We have stopped believing in public goods or public well-being and now see only clan- and network-based interests, to which one mans up and hitches one’s wagon or gets left in the dust, i.e., is a loser and a nobody.

In short, we have developed the mentality of a mafia state. As there are many stages in this process of gradual rot, we can still compare our situation favorably with that of, say, Mexico or Nigeria. But the momentum and the direction of the decline are clear enough.

In a non-mafia state there are rules and standards of fairness that, while never fully honored, exercise a certain degree of social control over the natural biped tendency to cash in for self and friends. Thus the congressman who was taped stuffing his pockets with cash from the FBI agents pretending to be Mideast sheiks—and whom I personally questioned about his belief system during a Capitol Hill news conference—was the object of scorn. Today, he would be criticized for crudity and sloppiness, but not ostracized. Similarly, Straw and Rifkind can rebut the charge that they and their influence are for sale by saying, So what? A guy’s gotta earn his living somehow, and who can get by on a lousy hundred thou a year? They will neither go to jail nor be dropped from party invitation lists.

I recognize this growing trend toward mafiosism having lived in South America for two decades. There, no one really believes or even pretends to believe that merit is the standard for advancement though it may be taken into account (or not). Instead, one has to have connections (cuña in Chilean slang, or “wedge”) and mobilize them; the relevant skills and competence may or may not also be required, but cuña is essential. This process will include all sorts of cajoling, ass-kissing, gift-giving, stroking, relative-schmoozing, and relentless buttering up until the goal is achieved. Sexual favors, of course, are often welcome.

The ideal form of this system is the political party, which is why the anti-Pinochet coalition that replaced the military regime in Chile in 1990 quickly degraded itself into a corrupt network of hustlers amassing and passing out favors. While there were people in the coalition trying to represent the interests of the entire population in the new government, they never constituted its core. Parallels with the Democratic Party, USA, are so obvious they barely need mentioning. (The GOP, now a whorehouse without even a beaded curtain to hide behind, even less.)

How much of this is inevitable? After all, government officials will always be biased toward their favorites, and economics inevitably drives decision-making. Democracy cannot pretend to operate at a remove from the overwhelming influence of profit. But when a society no longer believes in the nation, the collective polity as the repository of an ideal of fairness and equity and not just a jumble of jockeying clans blindly intent solely on their own exclusive advancements, the seeds of collapse are sown. No wonder we keep hearing so much about how Obama or some other enemy “doesn’t love America.” In psychology, it’s called projection.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ukraine v/s Greece, the double standard in EU romance

Ukraine just sealed a deal with the IMF for a cool $17.5 billion, which probably will help it limp forward in the war our bosses are so eager to pursue against Russia. It’s been clear from the beginning that our war-hungry leaders favor hostilities in Eastern Europe as they systematically explode avenues for resolution and act with maximum belligerence. If they were inclined toward peace-making, you wouldn’t have heard careful pols like Hillary make inflammatory comparisons of Putin with Hitler when the situation first started to spin out of control, which she carefully repeated to make everyone sure that they hadn’t just made a slip of the tongue.

Last week there was a new ceasefire agreement, which the EU promptly tried to sabotage by announcing a new sanctions regime against Russia. Huh? You make peace and then immediately punish the adversary for doing so? For reasons beyond my modest ken, Washington and its Euro-allies are determined to keep this dangerous outbreak stoked—no doubt the war-profiteer class pululating around the Beltway is delighted that it won’t face austerity any time soon.

Contrast the easy money made available to enable front-line Ukraine to continue bleeding itself with the Stern Daddy attitudes copped in negotiations with Greece, trying to get back on its feet despite the six-year kneecapping performed by its EU overlords. (“Fiscal waterboarding,” in Greek finmin Yanis Varoufakis’s phrase.) There, we hear about nothing but the sanctity of “agreements” that the prior Greek governments signed while Angela Merkel and her chief gringch, Wolfgang Schäuble, held a glock to their heads. Greece has no particular strategic importance, and the previous “bailouts” enabled German and French banks to get paid off in full for their foolish loans to the insolvent (an exact duplicate of the joint Bush/Paulson and Obama/Geithner strategy in saving the U.S. banks from their own folly). So Greece gets bupkis, and the Ukrainians a mountain of cash.

Not that the Ukrainians are so lucky—the pay-back terms are so onerous it is hard to predict whether Putin or the IMF will be more successful in bringing what was once a miserable and corrupt country to a state of dystopian collapse. But it’s amazing how quickly the IMF’s own rules about not lending to countries at war or to insolvent ones go out the window when geopolitics take priority.

Europe is courting disaster of a magnitude we can only imagine when reading historical fiction from the past century. The Greeks are offering reasonable terms to get the continent out of its demented marriage to a failed program of Freedom through Work, a.k.a., prosperity through penury. Instead, the banker class now running things throughout the western world insists that it should get all the goods, all the money and all the fixed wealth (they’re insisting that Greece sell off its infrastructure like ports and airports, even the Acropolis, to pay the impossible debts), that they and their children must rule like pharaohs while the little people toil in silence and survive on crusts. It’s happened before in human history, and if they get their way, it will return in due course. And they won’t hesitate to bring us World War III into the bargain.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sad, sad days

I helped my friend Billy say goodbye to his partner, who died after a brief illness at the obscenely young age of 38. The funeral took place in his Mohawk Valley hometown of Herkimer near Utica in upstate New York. He came from a big Italian-American clan with innumerable kids, grandkids, nephews, food and drink everywhere, and a massive turnout at the six-hour visitation: 1000 people, which had to be a sizable percentage of the local population. The lost brother was a dancer and had performed as late as October, so there was a strong atmosphere of disbelief. I could only imagine how keenly the deceased yearned to get back to his joyful life, with his artistic pursuits in the city, his boyfriend of six years, and his adoring sisters and gregarious brothers waiting for him back in the familiar village where he knew every street and every backwoods hideaway where he’d gone drinking as a teenager. He had wanted to avoid the hospital and get home for the holidays this year. But for the usual unfathomable reasons, he didn’t get his wish.

Times certainly have changed around the presence of the same-sex partner, even in a conservative zone like our upstate. On the train heading north, I was party to a long conversation among other riders about how much they hate Governor Cuomo (for his gun safety law), their disdain for poor people (though many are skating on the edge themselves) and the usual litany of Fox News-inspired complaints. And yet no one would dream of disrespecting Billy, the bereaved boyfriend. The preacher caught himself in time on the verge of leaving out Billy’s place among the listing of heartbroken relatives and preached a sweet, thoughtful eulogy citing Psalms about dance as a celebration of God's bounty.

There was a slide show of highlights of his life, which was wonderful and touching and terribly painful to watch. At the wake at the local Elks Lodge, I circulated among the relatives and a few New York dancer friends who had come up, a couple of whom will now have to rethink their careers and find new collaborators. My job was unobtrusively to be around and available, listen when needed, and resist the temptation to say anything “helpful.”

I’m familiar with small-town America and come from it. It has a warm, welcoming aspect and an ignorant, bloody-minded side, too. At the train station in Utica, I expected to get a taxi to take me the 12 miles to Herkimer, but none were around, and the barbershop gave me a phone number to call for one. Turned out they were all booked, but then the guy who took the call was curt, rude and hung up on me in mid-sentence. The funeral would be over in 90 minutes, and I was stuck.

So I said, Piss on this town, I’m getting there on my own, found my way down to the highway intersection and stuck out my thumb just like in the old days. Granted it was about 12 degrees and windy, so this might have looked imprudent to some, but in less than 10 minutes a guy pulled over to pick me up who not only was from Herkimer himself, but was headed there and knew the family. He dropped me off at the door to the funeral home. I was confident people wouldn’t leave an unthreatening, 60-plus-year-old white guy standing by the road in that weather for long. And I was right.

It’s curious how often in my past deaths have intersected with shifts I am undergoing in my personal life to the point where some profound sadness emerges during the departing one’s final illness or at the funeral, and I feel almost embarrassed to be piggybacking on others’ grief when, as in this case, I have just the most glancing acquaintance with the deceased. But one reacts as one reacts, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Perhaps that’s another reason why it didn’t feel at all like a chore for me to make this trip—on the contrary, I was delighted to be of some small service for a grieving friend, and in addition, odd as it sounds, I felt I was saying goodbye—to something—for myself as well.