Monday, April 6, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 2 (politics)

(This post is cross-posted at HitCoffee.)

In my last post, I promised to write about Spanish persons' thoughts on politics.  But what I have to say is probably more about the process of observing others' views and my wish to avoid at least some of the pitfalls when doing so.  In short, this post will be more about me than about Spain or the Spanish.

First a preface.  I'm aware of (many of) my limitations.  I know little of Spanish history beyond what anyone would know after having taken two semesters of Western Civ.  I probably know even less about Spanish politics, and I haven't gone out of my way to educate myself.  I also spoke with only a few people in Spain.  And those people had their own motivations, their own biases, and their own reasons for saying what they did.  The language barrier probably also prevented me from discerning much of the nuance of what they said--and probably prevented me from even understanding much, although my wife was there to translate.  I write this because I don't want to be that guy who goes to Europe or who has European friends and says, "they believe x," and then uses that generalization as evidence in favor of their own preferred policies in the US.

One of my wife's set of friends is a family that is probably "middle class" in the sense of "people who do non-manual and professional-like labor and are relatively better off than most people" (and not in the American sense of "everybody who is alive and not super poor or a billionaire").  They had a lot of complaints about the government's restrictive laws for businesses.  One person wanted to start up an internet business and sell things online, but the licensing and other regulations made it way too costly.  That family also seemed to be concerned that those regulations created a too large black market economy.

That critique meshes pretty well with my own neoliberal views.  But my wife and I met others who probably would have disagreed with her friends.  For instance, one taxi driver we met was upset, if I understood him correctly, over the Spanish government's proposals to endorse austerity programs and taxes on workers and over its complicity with German monetary policy.  That taxi driver, I assume from his comments but I'm also putting words into his mouth, wanted to keep many of the regulations which he believed protected workers like him but which my wife's other friends wanted to lessen or liberalize.

The Spanish people I talked to seemed much better informed about US politics than I was/am about Spanish or European politics.  While it's probably a bad thing for Americans not to know as much about politics outside the US as they do about politics within the US, I decline to chide my compatriots too much for their ignorance, which as it happens is my ignorance, too.  Spain is a smaller, less powerful country than the US and and daily life in Spain seems to be enmeshed in international affairs in more obvious, or at least more obviously direct, ways than daily life in the US is.  It's not because Spanish people are more virtuous or American people are more "anti-intellectual."  It's largely because circumstances demand greater attention to international matters.

Also, and with due respect to the people I met, their knowledge of US politics seemed on some level superficial.  The people I talked to, not surprisingly (to me), disliked George W. Bush and "the Republicans."  One person said, if I understood right, that the Republicans were the party of the past or the old guard (I believe his word was "ancianos"....although I might be misremembering or I might have misheard). However, I suspect, that the persons I spoke with don't quite understand how our system of single member district representation, along with our presidential (non-parliamentary) system, works.  In other words, I don't think they fully realize that someone can vote for the Democrats or the Republicans without necessarily supporting even most of that party's platform.

I don't say this as an indictment against them.  I have an even less firm grasp on Spanish politics and how the Spanish government works.  When I saw mention on Spanish TV about "el presidente del gobierno," I thought they were referring to something like a prime minister--and wikipedia says I'm right--but I the word "presidente" tripped me up and for a second I thought Spain had a presidential system like the US or a presidential/parliament system like France.   I'll repeat what I said above.  The Spanish people I met know more about the US government than most Americans, including me, know about the Spanish government.

My lesson from all this is the unsurprising one that people resemble each other in their propensity to frame things in ways they can understand and that supports their own biases.  The Spanish are human, just like me.  That lesson seems corny or even "awe shucks-y," but the fact that I "learned" that lesson means that I had a caricature of what it meant to be European or Spanish or non-American.  And now that caricature is less strong.  (I'll concede that, as commenter David Alexander suggested in my last thread, I'd have a chance to learn even more lessons if I had gone to India or Saudi Arabia.  I don't claim that my 9 days as a tourist in a western country necessarily exposes me to difference.)

In other words, and still not surprisingly, travel might help expose people to other worldviews in a way that my own provincialism does not.  I don't mean provincialism as a self-deprecating epithet, either.  I have a lot of reservations about cosmopolitanism and about "travel culture" and I believe those reservations still have merit.  When one cuts oneself off from the local, one loses something and the loss is real.  But going to Spain has demonstrated that those reservations have their limits and that if the loss is real, so is the gain.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 1 (random stuff)

(Cross-posted at Hit Coffee.)

My wife and I just returned from our honeymoon in Spain.  (We had actually gotten married about two years ago, but for a variety of reasons we’ve had to wait until now.)  Here are some of my observations/thoughts.

1.  I had never been to Europe or to any country other than the US or Canada before our trip. It was weird to be crossing the Atlantic, knowing that what once had been a great barrier could be crossed in hours.

2.  My Spanish is very poor.  I can understand my wife (who speaks it well), but my ability to speak the language is, err, “challenged.”  Still, I was surprised at how much I was able to understand when others spoke it.  It was also interesting to hear the use of “vosotros”/”vosotras” and what is known as the “Castillian lisp.”  I knew both features marked Iberian Spanish from the American Spanish I’m more used to.  But it was interesting to hear it in person.

3.  I was oddly surprised at how much American influence was evident in the culture.  I say “oddly” because I knew/know that American culture has a pretty wide reach and that Europe is in that “western” mold.  But still, it was striking to me how much Spain seemed like the US.  The fact we were in only two locales may have affected my impression. We stayed in what is probably downtown Madrid, although we visited some friends of my wife in a more residential area of that city.  We also stayed in Santiago de Compostela, in what is probably the touristy part (where the big Cathedral is).  We visited some friends there, too, but they lived nearby that area.

4.  The disaster with the Lufthansa airplane happened the day before we left for Spain.  My wife and I had both read about it, but declined to mention it to the other for fear that it would make the other nervous about the flight.  We thought we were keeping it a secret.  However, Spanish media covered the disaster quite extensively. (The plane had taken off from Barcelona).  I’m not sure how the coverage there compares to coverage in the US, or how it compares with coverage of other air disasters, like the TWA 800 flight in 1996.  (I mention that flight because my niece knew two of the people who died.)
In my next post, I’ll make a couple of observations about what little I grokked of Spanish persons’ thoughts on politics.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Family Guy and the Banality of Evil

[A version of this is posted on Ordinary Times here.  This version is slightly edited for some typos and formatting.]


This post is about "Family Guy," and I promise I'll get there.  But first I'll start with a long passage from George Orwell's 1984 (hat tip, Eric Blair).  Toward the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, writes the following in his diary [bold added by me]:
"April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never "


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Now back to "Family Guy."  I'm not sure it's okay to watch the show.  I like it.  I don't watch it much anymore, but that's mostly because it's on at inconvenient times for me.  But it's hard to know whether I should laugh at the humor.

Or some of the humor.  Many of its jokes are pretty innocent.  Take the scene where an errant golf ball crashes through a china shop and destroys all the porcelain vases and other breakable things.  A bull, who had been in the china shop innocently browsing the wares, now faces blame from the owner who was in a back room and didn't see what caused all the damage.  (Sorry, I can't seem to find a YouTube link to it, but it's funnier if you watch it than if you read my description.)  Some of the humor also strikes me as decent social commentary.  When Peter meets the crows from Dumbo and makes his comment about "good ole fashioned family racism" [not really offensive, but probably not safe for work], it's hard to deny he's on to something.  There are also a lot of fart jokes that aren't really my thing but are harmless.

But some humor crosses the line.  Take the scene where a barbershop quartet makes fun of an AIDS patient, or the repeated jokes about and abuse toward Meg, or the neighborhood pedophile character.  Everyone's mileage varies and the line-crossing jokes can sometimes be argued to have a point beyond harming others for the sake of laughter.  Examples [not safe for work]:  here, here, and here.

Finding the point—finding the justification for the humor—requires us to rely on irony.  We don't really think that it's appropriate to make fun of someone with a terminal illness.  We don't really think bullying a teenage girl is a good thing to do.  We don't really find pedophilia funny.  Instead, we (by which I mean, "me and others," because this is something I do) say it's so bad it's funny.  In fact, it's funny precisely because it's so bad, because we would never do those things or condone them being done outside movies or tv, or at least outside the cartoon world.  It's the type of thing we laugh at everyday.  We might also say that "Family Guy" is "an equal opportunity lampooner."  I have problems with that argument, both as a general argument and in the particular case of "Family Guy."

But how can we be sure that our laughter or enjoyment is not just another way of performing cruelty?  It's not right to make fun of people with terminal illnesses, but there was a time not too long ago when it was okay or at least not beyond the pale in at least some otherwise respectable circles to make jokes about "the gay disease."  Bullying isn't funny except when it is.  How many times have I made a comment on the internet that I believed to be funny but was probably on some level bullying?  (Answer, probably at least a few.)  Pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse isn't funny, but I suspect a goodly number of people here have occasionally laughed at "prison rape" jokes or whatnot.

Most people who make such jokes or who find troublesome things to be funny aren't sociopaths.  But I'm not so sure that sociopaths don't make such jokes.  And while it's a fallacy to say that because Socrates is a man, therefore all men are Socrates, the family resemblance between "Family Guy" humor and what cruel people do and probably laugh about is disconcerting to me.  Think of the bullies you may have known or people who have punched down (or even up) at you and the jokes they tell.  I'm not so sure they don't tell themselves they're not laughing at the person or the disability or the racial or sexual identity.  I wouldn't be surprised if they say instead that they're just laughing at the irony of it all.


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I began this post with the Orwell quotation for a reason.  What Winston Smith observed at the movie theater is what I'm suggesting happens with "Family Guy."  What entertainment we consume and partake in is also part of what we put out there and might very well contribute to a violent project.  Think of the history of blackface minstrel shows, which arose during slavery and flourished during Jim Crow. 

The analogy is not perfect.  I wouldn't be surprised if in Smith's dystopic world, people are required to watch such movies whereas in our real world we have a choice whether or not to watch "Family Guy."  And Jim Crow has been dismantled, at least formally.  There's also the idea that as consumers of entertainment we are detached.  We suspend disbelief.  And in so doing we are, as I noted above, "laughing at the irony of it all."

Am I just being puritanical?  Not in the Menckenian sense of the word.  I'm not tsk-tsk'ing.  I'm not arguing that "Family Guy" should be banned.  I'm not endorsing a letter-writing campaign or boycott to get it off the air.  I'm not even urging anyone else not to watch it.  I'll probably watch it or reruns someday in the future.

Maybe I am being puritan in another sense, though.  I believe that what we--by which, again, I mean "you and I"--perform and do is part of who we are and shapes what we become.  I resist calling that "puritanism" because doing so seems to imply that only puritans care about such things.

And we should consider what we laugh at.  It's not always an easy call.  The "prole" in Smith's passage might be on to something. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Duress on the dotted line

[Cross-posted at Hit Coffee, which Will Truman has invited me to join.  His site's a good one--and he and his other co-authors are pretty good writers, so you might want to check it out.]



Free will in the marketplace is a useful construct.  But it's a construct nevertheless and can't explain everything.

About 15 years ago, I was interested in joining a gym.  There was one near where I worked—it's part of a national chain that I'll call "23-Hour Fitness."*  I went there on my 30-minute lunch break to check out their prices.  What I got was an aggressive sales pitch that lasted about 45 minutes.  They gave me a tour of the place and a sit down discussion over the various "membership options," which varied so slightly in price and services that it was hard tell the differences among them.  When the people I was speaking with couldn't find a "membership rep" (who, apparently, was the only one there with authority to sign me up), I finally made my escape, telling them I had to get back to work.

This may seem weird to someone who hasn't experienced a similar ordeal or who has a stronger will than I do. But I felt guilty about leaving them without signing up, almost as if I had unfairly taken their time only to leave them in the lurch at the last minute.  In fact, if they had found a "membership rep," odds are at least even that I would have signed up just to leave with a clear conscience.  And for the record, I knew in the first 5 or 10 minutes that I didn't want to join at all.

What if I had signed and wanted out?  There probably were (and are) some consumer protection policies that could have helped me.  Maybe a grace period of 3 days.  Maybe a cause of action in small claims court or other court.  Maybe some government consumer protection commission.  There probably also were (and are) some non-governmental opportunities.  I could have gone to the "consumers' advocate" that most local media seem to have.  I could have gone to the Better Business Bureau.  I could have closed my checking account to prevent the automatic debits.

I'm not confident most of those things would have worked or that I would have availed myself of them.  I can imagine feeling just as intimidated going in on day two of the grace period and speaking with these same folks as I had during the signup meeting.  And I wouldn't even know how to pursue a claim in court.  And the media option is luck of the draw (they probably get scores of complaints a month and can follow up only on a handful) while the BBB option amounts to a harmless tsk-tsk against the offending company.  (Closing the checking account might have worked, but I'll leave that aside because it's not convenient to my narrative.)

My point, though, is that I might have done something because I felt compelled to even though I "knew" that I had no obligation to do it and "knew" doing it was a bad idea for me.  That's a problem.  But I'm not sure what solution—policy solution or otherwise—can adequately resolve that problem, where "adequately" means, I suppose, that which would protect others similarly situated.  Grace periods can be lengthened.  Causes of action can be made easier to pursue in court.  Etc.

Some solutions are better than others.  I wouldn't ban gym contracts, for example.  And something is to be said for an adult taking responsibility for her or his actions.  And at the end of the day I guess the important thing is I didn't sign, and the problem (for me, in that instance) is hypothetical.


*Disclosure:  23-Hour Fitness is not necessarily related to any organization with a similar sounding name. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

First question, am I a bread thief?

(I've just posted a slightly edited version of this at the OT as a guest poster.  Click here to read it and the comments.)



When is it wrong to steal and when is it okay?


If you believe that all property is theft, then it's not much of a stretch to believe it's never wrong to steal, unless you're talking about someone who owns property, in which case it's wrong for that person to steal.  If on the other hand you believe that private property is the eleventh commandment handed down from Mt. Sinai, then it's not much of a stretch to say it's always wrong to steal.


Few of us (I suspect) swing in that way, and of those who do, most (I suspect) at least allow for attenuating circumstances.  We'd say that sometimes, it's okay to steal.  Or it's never okay to steal, but sometimes it's at least understandable why someone might, and in some cases the thief and not the rightful owner of what is stolen is the more sympathetic party.  (I leave aside here the question of how one's ownership becomes "rightful" in the first place, although the less absolutist among us might very well address that question.)


Take the poor, starving bread thief, who steals a loaf from SuperMegaWalCorporation to feed his family.  To honor the spirit of this example, we should suppose that the thief has no other way to get bread or comparable aliment, that the family is truly starving, and that SuperMegaWalCorporation will not be noticeably harmed by the missing food item.  (If you want, we can stipulate that the bread is about to expire and SuperMegaWalCorporation would have to write it off as a loss anyway.)


I suspect most of us would probably say it's not wrong for that person to steal that item in that circumstance.  Or if we concede the theft to be wrong, most of us would hesitate before throwing the full condemnation of law and morality against him. 


How often do those circumstances actually happen?  I don't know.  I suppose they occur more often in the developing countries than in the first world.  Not having lived in poverty myself, for all I know the occurrence is much more widespread in the first world than I think.  But with due regard to what I do not know or have not experienced, I suspect that such circumstances tend not to occur in such a sheer, unrelenting form, where the thief is so destitute, the stolen item so needed by people so easy to sympathize with, and the "victim" of the theft so unharmed.

For most intents and purposes, the bread thief situation is pretty close to a pure form or pure ideal, which real life situations may approximate but probably rarely resemble exactly.  The destitute person may have made at least some mistakes or decisions that put him and his family in their predicament or worsened their predicament.  (Maybe a month ago he bought a king-sized Hershey's chocolate bar and now could have spent the money on a loaf of bread.)  The item stolen might be money, with which bread could be bought, it is true, but other less necessary things can also be bought.  The thief might not even have a family to support.  Maybe the stolen bread comes from the local bakery struggling to make ends meet and not from SuperMegaWalCorporation.  Or maybe the "assets protection" employee at SuperMegaWalCorporation is a minimum wage worker trying to support her own family and may have recently been warned that one more shoplifting incident, no matter how trivial, will result in her being written up.


I'm not saying any of this to trivialize hardship.  Again, I have never known poverty.  And I actually have a lot of sympathy for the person who, for example, makes some very poor choices and is now suffering hardship and who feels that best option at one point might very well be shoplifting.  I have less sympathy for the SuperMegaWalCorporation.  (But not no sympathy.  There's a margin.  Real people—employees, customers, and perhaps elderly retirees who grew up in the Depression, fought World War II, and hold all their savings in a 401(k) plan heavily invested in SuperMegaWalCorproation's stock—are adversely affected, or would be if enough such thefts occur.)


Rather, by calling the bread thief example a "pure form," what I mean is that it's one end of a spectrum.  The closer one is to the "bread thief" condition, the more justifiable—or at least understandable and sympathetic—the theft.  The closer one is to Bernie Madoff's condition ca. 2005, the less justifiable the theft.


But most of us aren't (I suspect) in the bread thief's position and most of us aren't (I'm fairly confident) in Mr. Madoff's position ca. 2005.  We're (probably, or at least sometimes) somewhere in between.  Someone with my affluence, advantages, and privilege would be wrong to shoplift from SuperMegaWalCorporation (assuming that we're not talking about the rightness of sticking it to corporate America).  Someone who is poorer might be more justified, or at least less wrong, to do so. 


I'm not pleading for a way to judge others.  If I were, I'd probably say the most charitable thing to do is to believe from the outset that the thief in question, even Mr. Madoff, probably on some level believes or has convinced himself that he really is a bread thief.  But like most injunctions against judging others, it's so hard to do in real life.  For one thing, it's easy for me to plead understanding for Mr. Madoff when I haven't been victimized by his scams scams.  For another thing, one paradox of the New Testament's "motes and beams" admonition is that once you invoke it against someone else, you're no longer honoring it.


Instead, I'm pleading for self-reflection.  If I took a survey of the OT's readers, I imagine that at least a majority would say that stealing is generally wrong, or at least wrong in some circumstances, but acceptable (or mitigated) in other circumstances.  Same thing with lying.  Same thing with killing.


But how confident are we—how confident am I—that we are more like the bread thief and less like Mr. Madoff?  Is that music video I watch on YouTube for free an instance of me getting something I really need, or is it me stealing from the artist and production crews?  Does my suspicion that Mr. Obama's "if you like your insurance you can keep it" lie was necessary to pass the ACA justify the dishonesty as long as poorer people get better coverage?  (For the record, I do watch/listen to YouTube music videos without any concern for whether the video is sponsored by the artist.  And I do temporize Mr. Obama's lie because of the end it (probably) helped effect.)


Here's my takeaway.  Whenever you are tempted to do something that you otherwise believe is wrong, I suggest you ask yourself, "Am I a bread thief."  If you can't honestly say "yes," then maybe you shouldn't do it.


To be clear, my admonition is more like a suspensatory veto than a red light.  If you're not a bread thief, then maybe you shouldn't do what you're contemplating   But maybe, pending further investigation, there may be other reasons to do it..  I don't have a firm opinion whether or when my admonition falls in line with the ethicist's holy trinity of duty, virtue, and utility.  But I think it works as a good first step, a practical question we should ask before action.