Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Viagra States

Putin and his favourite mount. Only one of them needs Viagra.
There are "failed" states and "rogue" states, and now we have Viagra states. A Viagra state, by my definition, is a country that feels it's having performance issues, or worries that something in its culture will make others see it as being less than all a state should be. And the solution these states arrive at, their formula for pumping up their self-esteem, is to prescribe legislative blue pills that criminalize homosexuality. This week, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni put his signature to a law that will put people behind bars for life if convicted of homosexual acts. This follows on the heels of new anti-gay legislation in Nigeria enacted this past January, and last summer's anti-gay laws in Russia, which brings the total number of countries with anti-gay laws on the books to seventy-six.

A quick look through the list of countries with anti-gay laws shows that most are from Africa and the Middle East, with a sizable number from the Caribbean. These anti-gay countries can be broadly defined as being either very poor or very religious, and sometimes both. But why this phobia about gay sex? For most countries the answer lies at the intersection of conservative social mores and religion, the place where minority groups traditionally get a thorough kicking for not being part of the herd. But three countries in particular, Russia, Nigeria and Iran, like to regard themselves as manly, hairy-chested, regional superpowers, but all three, it would seem, secretly recognize that their virile self-images do not match up to reality. These are the Viagra states.

This threesome is rich in oil and gas reserves, have strong military forces, and see themselves as regional, even global, leaders. Their reality is rather grimmer. Nigeria is a hot mess of corruption, gangsterism and low-grade civil war; Iran's economy is on the ropes, and it's being made to knuckle under on the nuclear front by a combination of diplomacy and economic sanctions; and Russia, once a true superpower, has been reduced to a shambolic kleptocracy presided over by Vladimir Putin, the poster boy for Viagra states with his narcissistic photo-ops showing him wrestling wild animals, practicing martial arts, and generally presenting himself as a Slavic Marlboro Man. These are countries with a fragile sense of self-esteem, and because their self-image is so infused with rugged masculinity, they get just a wee bit hysterical when the subject of homosexuality rears its head. This psychological explanation fits nicely because the number of gays in these nations, or any nation, is so very low. Most studies suggest homosexuals make up six percent or less of the population. The gay community, then, is one of the smallest of minorities, and yet it's attracting an extraordinary amount of abuse from the Viagra states. The reason for this situation, I'd argue, is that for states that are desperately seeking to project an image of strength and virility, anything that smacks of effeminacy is cause for panic.

At another level, anti-gay laws are simply a variation on anti-Semitism, in that they're a means to scapegoat a small and powerless minority. Much of the anti-gay  rhetoric coming out of places like Uganda and Russia revolves around the idea of homosexuality being "unnatural" and "against nature." This is in addition to worries about gays "corrupting" and "infecting" society as a whole. This kind of twisted logic and cruel language is familiar from anti-Semitic screeds dating back to, well, go ahead and name your century--any will do. And like many examples of anti-Semitism, anti-gay rhetoric and laws are a way for brutish regimes to move attention away from their own shoddy governance, while at the same time taking a swipe at the West by claiming that homosexuality is a pernicious import. Iran's former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took this line when he famously said that there were no homosexuals in Iran.

What these Viagra states forget or don't realize is that the gay community, like Germany's Jews prior to World War Two, has a disproportionate number of the best and brightest minds, so any diaspora resulting from anti-gay laws will turn out to be detrimental to the intellectual health of these countries. But maybe that's the least they deserve.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


The wife and I just finished a ten day vacation on Maui, and so here's some stray thoughts on the island and the experience:

Hey, parents! How about a staycation?

When our kids were small our most ambitious vacations were long drives to campsites. An unbelievable number of parents seem to think taking small children on a long flight to Maui is a great idea. Why? The kids are too young to swim and Maui's devoid of anything that resembles an amusement park. Taking little ones to Maui seems like a great way to blow a few thousand dollars while wasting your precious vacation time.


I thought the most dangerous creatures I'd encounter on Maui would be timeshare condo pitchmen, but it turns out there are biting centipedes that are this BIG:

The Hana Highway

All the guidebooks tell you to take this drive on the northern, rain forest side of the island. It's nice, but it's mostly a tunnel of vegetation interrupted by several hundred hairpin turns. A drive upcountry or around the northwest corner of the island are far more spectacular. 

The beach at Hana

American tourist areas can have many things wrong with them, but food usually isn't a problem. All our meals were spectacular, the best of which we enjoyed at this very un-Hawaiian restaurant, Leoda's, which specializes in meat pies:


Humpback whales: Squirrels of the sea

You see them everywhere. Not on land, of course, but any glance towards the sea is likely to be rewarded with the sight of whales jumping, spouting, splashing, and generally frisking about. 

Invasive Species

Sadly, most of what you see flying, scampering and crawling around Maui has come from elsewhere and driven out the native wildlife. Mongooses, for instance, were brought in to control rats (another invader). No one took note of the fact that rats are nocturnal while mongooses are diurnal. The losers were the island's native birds. But the invasive species that was most destructive to Hawaii's culture was on display one Sunday morning when our hotel and a nearby restaurant held open air church services for visitors. Both services incorporated hula dances into their ceremonies, which is richly ironic given that Christianity and Christian missionaries did as much to destroy native culture throughout the Pacific as syphilis or plantation agriculture.

Hiram Bingham, the first American missionary to
Hawaii and no fan of hula dancing.


I've never been a fan of tattoos, but seeing them on native Hawaiians underlined the fact that, for me, tattoos are only attractive when they're also culturally appropriate. There's a lot of exposed North American flesh on Maui, much of it bearing tattoos, and it was a reminder that outside of their origin islands in the Pacific, tattoos are essentially nothing more than the dermal version of novelty T-shirts.

No signs of the times

Hawaii has banned billboards and any kind of visually obtrusive commercial signage! Not that Maui needs in any help in this regard, but what a painless way to beautify urban and rural landscapes. The only minor drawback is that finding things like hotels or restaurants got a bit tricky without a GPS, but I was happy to put up with that if it meant not seeing illuminated golden arches sticking into the sky.

On Maui you'd only be seeing palm trees
 I haven't gone to that many sun destinations, but after one visit I can't imagine going to any other southern destination except Maui. It's not for everyone, however; there's no night life to speak of, and most everything seems to shut down by ten at night. But given that I spent most of every day swimming and snorkeling, I was usually unconscious by nine. And if you're looking for bargain luxury on Maui (yes, I know it's an oxymoron) stay as we did at the Kannapali Beach Hotel. It's rates are a bargain given that it sits on the most luxurious beach on the island. And if they want to reward me with some free nights after that plug I'm fine with that.

Kaanapali Beach Hotel

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

From 2009 to 2013, Max Blumenthal made a series of trips to Israel to witness and report on the reality of political and social life in Israel. The picture that emerges from his examination of Israel explains perfectly why both the Israeli Apartheid protests and the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) exist and why they're necessary. Blumenthal's book covers a lot of territory, from the ethnic cleansing that originally created the state of Israel to the political persecution of its Palestinian citizens to the all-pervasive racism that forms the emotional backbone of Israel's de facto system of apartheid.

One of the most shocking things about this book is the fact that so little of what goes on in Israel, the actions that lead to campaigns like BDS, goes unreported in the mainstream Western media. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Israel is proactive in pressuring news organizations like CNN and the New York Times to send over correspondents who are prepared to mute their criticisms of any and all Israeli actions. Here in Canada, CBC Middle East correspondent Neil MacDonald faced a barrage of criticism from Canadian Jewish groups for his "biased" reporting on Israel until he was moved on to being the network's Washington correspondent in 2004. Typically, any reporting that critiques Israel ends up with the reporter being labelled an "anti-Semite" by Israel and pro-Israeli groups. This is why reporting by Jewish writers like Max Blumenthal is so important; it removes the knee-jerk and facile cry of anti-Semitism from the equation, although this hasn't stopped fanciful pro-Israeli commentators from describing Blumenthal and others like him as "self-hating" Jews.

Ingenuous apologists for Israel, as seen in this recent piece in the New York Times, like to argue that the charge of apartheid doesn't stick because formal, bureaucratic devices such as pass laws don't exist in Israel. As Blumenthal shows in painful detail, an ever-enlarging suite of domestic laws and military orders restrict and exclude Palestinians from a wide range of civil rights; and an even more effective means of control and abuse is to simply ignore the law when it applies to Palestinians. Israeli security forces are virtually never disciplined or criticized for abuses against Palestinians, and the same can be said for Jewish attacks (usually settlers) against Palestinians. One could argue that the reason there are no pass laws in Israel is because such a measure would be redundant--the oppressed population is kept down quite nicely without the bother of printing up cards. Anyway, according to a recent poll conducted by the Haaretz newspaper, most Israelis are in favour of an apartheid system, and over half believe apartheid already exists.

It doesn't seem surprising that many Israeli Jews have racist attitudes towards Arabs, but what comes as a shock is how virulent and widespread racism has become. African refugees from the Sudan are subjected to astonishing levels of abuse, and even Mizrahi Jews (those who originated in the Middle East) are looked down upon by Ashkenazi Jews (European Jews), and the ultra-Orthodox seem to have a hate on for most everyone. The most horrific expression of this racism was the publication of a book in 2009 called Torat Ha'Malech. The book was written by two Orthodox rabbis, and it's best described as a guidebook for the killing of non-Jews, the highlight of which is this passage: "There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults." The Israeli government had legal grounds to prosecute the rabbis for writing the book but chose not to.

The nationalist/Zionist racism that has become all-pervasive in Israel isn't only a danger to the country's Palestinian citizens. An increasingly right-wing Knesset is introducing more and more laws which chip away at Israel's tenuous status as a democracy. These laws limit civil liberties for Palestinians, and yet others stifle dissent in any way, shape or form for all Israelis. Israel often likes to declare itself the only democracy in the Middle East, but Blumenthal shows that this is a very debatable claim. The fever swamp that is contemporary Israel has also caused a demographic crisis. While the government is rabidly fearful of the alleged threat of Israeli Arab population growth, it's racist policies, it's pandering to the settler and Orthodox communities, all this has led to the emigration of young, educated, secular Jews who feel Israel is becoming unbearably intolerant and paranoid. Apparently more than a million Israelis now live abroad, and, irony of ironies, one of their preferred destinations is Berlin because of its cosmopolitan, welcoming character.

A legion of pro-Israeli lobbying groups in the West are constantly trying to wrap Israel's crimes and misdemeanors in a kind of moral bubble-wrap, usually by trotting out the excuse that when Israel steps over the line from time to time, it's only because it's defending itself, and, anyway, its neighbours do things that are so much worse. That's a bit like defending a man who beats his wife with the argument that he's not all that bad since the guy next door beats his wife and his kids. The defenders of Israel are actually doing a disservice to the country: the more pressure that's brought to bear on Israel to treat all its citizens as equals, the more likely it will be forced to create a lasting internal peace, which could in turn lower the emotional temperature throughout the Middle East. But even for a country located in the Holy Land, that's probably too much of a miracle to expect.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Here's who I really want to see this film: Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. The pair should be strapped into chairs, have their eyelids locked open a la Clockwork Orange, and be made to watch it over and over again until they begin screaming, "I get it! I get it!" The former will have learned that the history of American slavery is not a suitable subject for an action-comedy wankfest, and the latter will realize that a historical film about a grave and serious subject doesn't need to be buried under a pyroclastic flow of sentimentality, melodrama, bombastic music, and overripe production design.

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing true story about Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, in 1841 who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Northup's story (the film is based on the book he wrote about his experiences) is filled with the historical tropes of American slavery--beatings, separation of families, sexual exploitation, rape, lynchings, and backbreaking labour. All of these crimes have been shown before in films about the pre-Civil War South, so don't be expecting to see something new on the subject of slavery. What makes this film so exceptional is its artistry.

Director Steve McQueen has made the brilliant decision to let the facts speak for themselves. The horrors of slavery are presented without undue emphasis or sentimentality. One scene early in the film shows a black mother being sold and thereby permanently separated from her two small children. It would have been easy to go the Spielberg route and turn the scene into something overblown, like an aria from a tragic opera, but McQueen lets the scene play out sans editorial comment, and it becomes all the more ghastly because it's underplayed. The director's restraint is even more evident at the end of the film when a single scene encompasses both Northrup's salvation as his white Northern friends find him and secure his release, and his parting from Patsey, a female slave who's the tormented concubine of her demented owner, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender. Any other director would have dragged this sequence out for maximum emotional value, but McQueen positively whips through the scene and captures that bolt from the blue feeling Northup must have experienced. McQueen clearly made the decision that the facts of Northrup's enslavement needed no dressing up.

This is also a beautifully shot film. There's no sweeping camerawork, no overuse of filters to create gaudy sunrises and sunsets, there's just one beautifully composed shot after another. Like the script and the direction, the cinematography isn't trying to manipulate our emotions or hammer home plot points. And the same can be said for the music by Hans Zimmer, which sometimes has a jarring, almost science fiction-y sound to it that emphasizes Northrup's transition from freedom to slavery. The actors are all top-notch, although Brad Pitt's cameo felt more like a movie star doing a cameo than an actor tackling a role. And yet more credit for McQueen for his choice of Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey. She's beautiful, but most directors would have chosen a more conventionally attractive actor for the role, and they certainly would have played up her looks to explain why she becomes her owner's sex slave. So, needless to say, this is my choice for best film of the year, and I might have to rate it as one of the best films of the last ten years. That it should have to face off against trash like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street for Oscars is a tragedy of another kind.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Book Review: Port Vila Blues (1996) by Garry Disher

If you've ever read any of the Parker crime novels by Richard Stark (I've a got piece on him here), then there won't be many surprises waiting for you in the Wyatt novels by Garry Disher. The setting is Australia instead of the US, but in every other regard Wyatt is simply Parker's Down Under cousin. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Most genre writers ride on the coattails of the historical greats in their field, and in the case of crime/mystery fiction there are very few contemporary fictional sleuths/heroes who don't carry some of the DNA of Phillip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and, yes, Parker.

In Port Vila Blues Wyatt, a career thief every bit as ruthless and efficient as Parker, faces off against a bunch of corrupt cops after his latest burglary unearths a Tiffany brooch that leads to a crooked judge who's masterminding his own team of burglars. There's double-crosses, random acts of violence, and Wyatt has to get himself out of some very tight situations. The writing is good, but if you've read anything by Stark you're left wishing that he had not taken a twenty-five-year hiatus in writing Parker novels.

What's interesting about Parker, Wyatt and Lee Child's Jack Reacher (yet another of Parker's literary cousins) is the appeal these sociopaths have for readers. Yes, they are sociopaths. What distinguishes the firm of Parker, Wyatt & Reacher from other crime fiction heroes and anti-heroes is their utter cold-bloodedness, their disconnect from normal life and emotions, and their casual use of lethal and non-lethal violence. In the real world, people like this are behind bars for lengthy stretches or on death row, and society is happy that that's where they are. In fiction, however, a significant number of readers take a vicarious thrill in the remorseless actions of PW & R. It's rather disturbing and revealing that a great many people have a secret fantasy that involves either being a stone cold killer, or wishing that there was flinty-eyed avenging angel out there (take a bow, Jack Reacher) willing and eager to kill without mercy or hesitation in order to return the social order to its rightful balance. What separates PW & R from more traditional heroes is their thorough disconnect with normal human relationships and behavior. PW & R don't have hobbies, they have no permanent relationships, no living relatives, they have alliances rather than friendships, most quotidian human pleasures are a mystery to them, and the opposite sex only exists for casual sex. James Bond may have been the first hero of this type (here's my piece on Bond), but at least his sociopathy was moderated by rampant sensualism; PW & R are positively monk-like in their tastes--Reacher, for example, makes a fetish of only drinking black coffee.

I'll admit I'm a fan of PW & R, but it's something of a guilty pleasure. Like a lot of other readers, I guess I have a secret, perverse desire for an agent of chaos and violence to be at large in the world to disrupt my safe, predictable middle-class existence. I know that it would be best and safest to live in a Miss Marple world, but every once in a while I'd like to see PW & R blow through town and knock over a bank, gun down a crime lord, and break the arms of some thugs. But please, no casual sex with Miss Marple. Some worlds should never collide.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Kathleen Wynne: Ontario's Worst Tipper

Documented proof of Kathleen Wynne's stinginess.
So let's say you've just had a meal at a diner--breakfast, perhaps--and your bill comes to $10.25. How much do you tip? 15% would be the norm, higher if you felt you got great service or if you had a thing for your server, but what if you left 7%? That amount would seem to suggest you felt there was something wrong with the service, that it wasn't quite right; not bad enough to cause you to leave without tipping, but shoddy enough that you felt it necessary to send a message to your server. Or maybe you're just a lousy Kathleen Wynne.

Premier of Ontario Kathleen Wynne just raised the province's minimum wage by 75 cents to $11, which represents an increase of 7%. Clearly, Ontario's minimum wage workers (roughly 9% of the workforce) have done something to disappoint Wynne. Did a supermarket cashier crush her bread by putting it in the same bag as the potatoes? Perhaps a coffee shop employee forgot to stamp her loyalty card? Or did the office cleaners neglect to scrape a wet tissue out of the bottom of her wastebasket? We may never know. Wynne has put these workers on warning that their attitudes better improve if they want to get a tip raise to $14 an hour, which would put them fractionally above the poverty line.

Heavy, bitter sarcasm aside, Premier Wynne has essentially insulted every minimum wage worker in Ontario with a parsimonious increase on an hourly wage that's already laughably low. Does it help? In a meagre way, yes, it probably eases the financial pain for some people, but only in the sense that a cold day outside feels better than a very cold day--it's still goddamn winter. What's worse is that Wynne is proposing to make further increases automatic, but tied to the inflation rate. This is a duplicitous move that would see the minimum wage permanently pegged below the poverty line while letting the government appear to be caring and generous. As is normal with an increase in the minimum wage, the usual suspects in the small-business lobbying world (read a full Toronto Star article on the issue here) squealed loudly about the dire consequences of making poor people slightly less poor. The provincial Conservative Party chimed in with their corporate masters, and, somewhat surprisingly, NDP leader Andrea Horvath (apparently a paper-tiger socialist) had nothing to say about how ridiculous this raise is.

In that Toronto Star article I linked to above, a restaurant owner named Steve Mastoras complains that the increase will add $30k to his payroll per year, and, he mutters darkly, may lead to lower staffing levels. The Star should have done a little basic research into Steve's business in order to highlight how inconsequential this raise is to business owners. Mastoras owns Whistler's Grille in Toronto, which is open 7 days a week, 16 hours a day. Applying some basic math reveals that Steve will need to take in an extra $83 a day, or just over $5 a hour, to make up for the increase to his payroll. Whistler's has over 50 items on its menu, not including soft drinks, coffee, tea and beer and wine, and there's also a banquet hall that provides an extra income. It doesn't take a degree in accountancy to realize that Mastoras can pass the wage increase on to his customers with price increases that would amount to pennies per menu item. When presented as a lump sum $30k sounds like a big hit, but put in context it's risible, just like the increase in the minimum wage.

Steve Mastoras and lobbying groups like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business fit the definition of an economic sub-group that both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes chose to describe as "cheap bastards." Yes, petit bourgeois capitalists are among the tightest of the tight, and they'll support any measure, no matter how punitive it is to others, that will improve their bottom line. The fact that a hefty minimum wage increase might actually improve their business doesn't enter their calculations. Intriguingly, Dave Bryans, the chief executive of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association, supported the wage increase. Bryans, unlike most politicians and business lobbying groups, seems to realize that the wage increase also represents an increase in spending power for workers, and some of that money will end up being spent in convenience stores. Who knows, if the wage had gone up to $14 some people might have had enough money drop in at Whistler's Grille and have a meal. People at the lowest end of the hourly wage bracket shop and spend locally, unlike the middle classes who earmark a significant chunk of their discretionary spending for cross-border shopping, trips south, and those all-important artisanal cheeses from France.

Kathleen Wynne's reluctance to do the humane thing and raise the minimum wage above the poverty level also reflects an attitude that many in the upper income levels of society share: if you're working for minimum wage that means that you're either stupid, lazy, or incompetent, and possibly all three. From this point of view a miserly minimum wage is a richly-deserved punishment for the dregs of society. Why should we want to give a decent living to people who aren't, well, decent people?

Aside from some poorly-funded anti-poverty advocacy groups, no one is agitating strongly for a realistic minimum wage. So here's how you can protest effectively against what amounts to a pro-poverty minimum wage. If you work for minimum wage and encounter Kathleen Wynne as part of your job, politely tell her that you won't be able to provide a decent level of service until she gives you a decent wage. You can then make her wait an extra few minutes while you get her dry cleaning off the rack; neglect to refill her coffee; only partially empty her office wastebasket (make sure to leave behind anything disgusting); and if you're a care worker in charge of one of Wynne's aged relatives, let her know that she'll have to come over and help out with emptying bedpans. You'd probably get fired for doing any of these things, so restrict yourself to telling Wynne about all the different ways working for minimum wage restricts your ability to lead a pleasant life. If you manage to make her feel irritated and uncomfortable, consider your protest action a success--you've given Wynne a taste of what life is like on minimum wage.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Book Review: The Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012) by Manu Joseph

In Manu Joseph's previous novel, Serious Men (2010), an Indian research facility staffed by the country's tallest foreheads is shaken to its core by a sex scandal and some mischief-making by a lowly clerk. In Happiness, Joseph seems to be building on a theme begun in Serious Men of showing how intellect and imagination lives in conflict with Indian society. Joseph's story this time is about a father's quest to learn why his son killed himself at the age of seventeen.

The father is Ousep, a not very successful journalist living in Madras with his wife Mariamma and son Thoma. Three years previously, Uuni, the eldest son, leaped to his death from the family's apartment building. For the next three years Ousep doggedly interviews, questions and badgers everyone who knew his son in an effort to learn the truth about Uuni's inexplicable suicide. The picture that emerges is of a seriously smart, even brilliant, boy who concocted his own sophisticated philosophical system to give some meaning to his life. At the heart of his belief system is the idea that all people are naturally happy. The tragedy of Uuna's life is that he finds out that some people's happiness comes at the expense of others.

The larger picture painted by Joseph concerns India's middle-class males, both the young and the old. The boys of Uuni's age are tormented by family pressure (sometimes accompanied by blows) to succeed brilliantly at school in order to go on to university and succeed brilliantly there and then win the golden ticket of a job in America. And men of all ages live in a near-permanent state of sexual frustration thanks to living in a society that barely allows looking at, let alone touching, the opposite sex. Uuni finds release from these pressures through drawing cartoons and graphic novels, and working out a philosophy to assuage the torments of daily life in Madras. Several of Uuni's peers also find their own unique and peculiar ways to deal with life's stresses, including one boy who chooses to believe that he's dead. So many of the characters in Happiness are blessed with brains and imagination, the raw materials for happiness, but too often their culture places painful restrictions or obligations on their intellects.

Although the subject matter of the novel is serious, Joseph has a light and witty prose style, as evidenced by this brief but brilliant character description:

Sai stands in his spineless way, young but antiquated, studious but not clever, a thick steel watch on his wrist, his oiled black hair combed in the good-boy hairstyle. He looks like the past of an old man.

So while this is basically a sad, even tragic, story,  Joseph manages to blend in a fair amount of humor and warmth. If there's weaknesses it's that the few female characters feel somewhat underdone, and the ultimate revelation of what motivated Uuni to jump to his death has a touch of the melodramatic about it, which is not in keeping with the rest of the novel. Those two problems aside, Happiness is yet another argument for seeking out Indian writers--they rarely disappoint.