Friday, February 27, 2004

Wow – this is Samuel Huntington, the “Clash of Civilizations” guy. Looks like American civilization is under attack again – but not from Islamic fundamentalists. Nope, this time it’s Mexicans – hordes of ‘em. Their seditious plot? Well, just to chase the American Dream, really, only en español.

According to Huntington, “American values” are actually - as maintained by anti-American conspiracy theorists all along - “Anglo-Protestant values”. Originally, he says, Americans defined themselves through “race, ethnicity, culture and religion”. The drive to independence produced the need to define America “ideologically”, to distinguish it from (also Anglo-Protestant) Britain. Thus were produced the Declaration of Independence and so forth. Which would in future allow commentators, in endless scholarly articles featured in Arts & Letters Daily, to contrast American belief in “universal values” with irrational European “blood and soil” nationalism – a useful distinction to make whenever France or Germany are being intransigent about something.

Then, with the conquest of the American West producing surplus land (allowing future scholarly conservatives to talk about how the US is the “only Great Power in history to have no imperial ambitions”), and the drive to develop industry, the Anglo-Protestants were good enough to let in a whole bunch of Krauts, Polacks, Paddys, Eyeties, and even eventually let black people have the vote. E Pluribus Unum.

But now, says Huntington, it’s time to step back from all that “universalist” stuff and reassert the core WASP identity of the USA. Because this is under threat from an endless stream of chicanos. They just keep coming across the border, they outnumber all other immigrants put together and, worst of all, they want to retain their language and culture. There’s a risk we could see, through peaceful, demographic means, the Hispanic reconquest of the entire Southwest.

What could be the outcome for America if this goes on unchecked? Well, it could turn into Miami. This is what Huntington has to say about Miami:

The economic growth of Miami, led by the early Cuban immigrants, made the city a magnet for migrants from other Latin American and Caribbean countries. By 2000, two thirds of Miami's people were Hispanic, and more than half were Cuban or of Cuban descent…

The Cuban takeover had major consequences for Miami. The elite and entrepreneurial class fleeing the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the 1960s started dramatic economic development in South Florida. Unable to send money home, they invested in Miami. Personal income growth in Miami averaged 11.5 percent a year in the 1970s and 7.7 percent a year in the 1980s. Payrolls in Miami-Dade County tripled between 1970 and 1995. The Cuban economic drive made Miami an international economic dynamo, with expanding international trade and investment. The Cubans promoted international tourism, which, by the 1990s, exceeded domestic tourism and made Miami a leading center of the cruise ship industry. Major U.S. corporations in manufacturing, communications, and consumer products moved their Latin American headquarters to Miami from other U.S. and Latin American cities. A vigorous Spanish artistic and entertainment community emerged. Today, the Cubans can legitimately claim that, in the words of Prof. Damian Fernández of Florida International University, “We built modern Miami,” and made its economy larger than those of many Latin American countries.

Sounds good. You come, you expand the economy, you conquer.

But no, says Huntington. The difference is that (apart from Miami being a steaming swamp anyway, so who cares) the Cubans were initially mainly upper and middle class (and, though he doesn’t mention it, white). The flood of Mexicans, by contrast, is predominantly poor and uneducated, which spells some kind of poorly-defined trouble. They may not actually be potential suicide bombers. But there are important “cultural differences”. We know this because, for example:

“Author Robert Kaplan quotes Alex Villa, a third-generation Mexican American in Tucson, Arizona, as saying that he knows almost no one in the Mexican community of South Tucson who believes in “education and hard work” as the way to material prosperity and is thus willing to “buy into America.” Profound cultural differences clearly separate Mexicans and Americans, and the high level of immigration from Mexico sustains and reinforces the prevalence of Mexican values among Mexican Americans.”

Rigorous evidence, certainly.

Huntington does have tables of stats showing how poor, uneducated, insufficiently upwardly mobile and just damn good-for-nothing Mexican Americans are. I’m sure plenty of holes could be picked in them, but it’s not clear that they’re actually relevant. On balance, he doesn’t actually seem to be claiming that Mexican Americans are a drain on the economy – anyway, where’s the table tracking “numbers of tomatoes in California that need to get picked”?

Rather, the key concern appears to be that the preservation by Latino migrants of their language and culture, and their ability to not be fully “acculturated”, might create a “self-sufficient enclave” outside the “mainstream”. He issues vague but stern warnings about this prospect. He suggests that future American public servants might need to be bilingual! He quotes flaky liberals who suggest that that might even be a good thing. In a worst-case scenario, the US might end up like (shock) Canada or Belgium.

The hordes of chicanos, and their damnable insistence on not speaking *only* English, says Huntington, could be “the one thing that will choke the melting pot”. But it’s not clear that the melting pot is at risk, so much as the Anglo-Protestant dominance of how the shape, colour and smell of the pot is defined. The lesson from Miami, after all, is that Anglos can end up being an ethnic minority, too. And won't necessarily like it.

It’s hard to see too much else going on here apart from an ethnocentric distaste for genuine diversity, and a disquieting lack of faith in the genuinely integrative force of “universal values”.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

I need a strategy for my trip to South America. I need a Statement of Intent and Key Performance Indicators.

There’s many things I want to do – explore Macchu Picchu and other lost Inca things, penetrate to the heart of the Amazon, bond with local cultures, do voluntary work, write lots of travel journalism and other stuff. But the bottom line is that I don’t end up – read this, Simon Bidwell, in six months time! – stuck drinking tequila in a backpackers bar in Cuzco with a bunch of alcoholic Danes, pissed because some mildly interesting Canadian girl has rebuffed my timorous advances. Therefore I’m setting the Terms of Reference now, and I’ve decided that language immersion and improvement will be the minimum contracted requirements for my travels:
Target 1: take my Spanish to the next level
Target 2: get some Portuguese going

Actually, the Portuguese is optional and secondary. The absolute minimum I should expect from a year or so in Latinoamerica is * much better Spanish * This will require effort, but – that’s not too much to ask, is it?!

Friday, February 20, 2004

Today's Dominion Post reprinted an article from the Times which is enthusiastic about the prospect of Kerry as president. If the Times likes him, that means Murdoch tolerates him, or is at least prepared to hedge his bets. This has got to improve Kerry's chances.

Tellingly, the Times was particularly upbeat about Kerry's views on energy policy and his intentions to make the US less dependant on Middle East oil by promoting energy effiiciency and conservation. While that might seem like a "progressive" issue, it's worth noting that Big Oil and Big Media seem to be, fairly uniquely in the world of global capitalism, not incestuously intertwined. This allows even the purveyors of Murdockian orthodoxies to articulate common sense and sanity, should they become overwhelmingly compelling. Though probably not Fox News, because that wouldn't be sufficiently Fair and Balanced.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

My newly intensive relationship with the medical world continues. Last week I (finally) got the crown put on my tooth implant, and yesterday I got the first three in a series of vaccinations before I go travelling. Yesterday afternoon I amused myself by telling people "don't come too close - I've got yellow fever, measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus"

Next week will be even more amusing, when I have hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid and rabies. Ha ha.

Monday, February 16, 2004

From the Economist, the latest popular science article on how "scientific research shows something you thought you vaguely understood to be something just as vague but with more sciency words like 'dopamine' and 'promoter sequence' "

In this case, it's that old hoary chestnut revisited - the "chemical basis for love". Quite amusing, but with some rather scary bits, viz:

"That raises the question of whether it is possible to “treat” this romantic state clinically, as can be done with [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder]. The parents of any love-besotted teenager might want to know the answer to that. Dr Fisher suggests it might, indeed, be possible to inhibit feelings of romantic love, but only at its early stages. OCD is characterised by low levels of a chemical called serotonin. Drugs such as Prozac work by keeping serotonin hanging around in the brain for longer than normal, so they might stave off romantic feelings. "

Conclusions include:

"So love, in all its glory, is just, it seems, a chemical state with genetic roots and environmental influences."

Hmm, what did the scientists expect they might find?
"Love discovered to be the eternal, transcendental union of two human souls"...

"Invisible arrow-wielding infant figures may be responsible for love between humans"....

This is classic, though:

"Rats can be conditioned to prefer particular types of partner—for example by pairing sexual reward with some kind of cue, such as lemon-scented members of the opposite sex."

Maybe I should try lemon-scented aftershave..."attracts members of the opposite sex while you do dishes!"

The telling admission (almost) comes at the end:

"Romantics, of course, have always known that love is a special sort of chemistry. Scientists are now beginning to show how true this is. "

Right, so, the article is littered with popular song titles and metaphors ("Addicted to love" etc.) to illustrate its points, and we learn that (surprise!) lust, romantic love and long-term companionship are all different and have different effects on behaviour. In exactly what respect, then, has 'hard science' inproved on literary, artistic and folk wisdom? And why do we necessarily need the former to validate the latter?

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Great quote from Avril; the other night when we were having a few drinks at the flat and I mentioned the pinot noir festival that was on in town the other week, she came out with (tone of great scorn) "pinot noir is the REM of wine" What she meant was that they were both boring, insipid and overrated. Although I'm mostly a fan of REM, and don't mind pinot noir, I laughed like anything; knowing Avril's views on REM, it was a spontaneous and situation-perfect metaphor, a rare example of true wit.

Last night I went to a party at Matt and Jocasta's on Todman St for Jocasta's birthday. It was a surprise party, and Matt had got a jazz band to play in their back garden. As I walked down the street from my place I could hear the music floating up from the little hollow where their house is, and echoing off the hills. It was very light - "Watermelon Man" type stuff, with one sax and guitar. Sweet and dreamy sounds for an early evening Friday in Brooklyn - impossible to object to, one would have thought. Some people walking down Todman St clapped at the end of a song, and I could see other people who had come out on their balconies to listen

Yet as the band was finishing, about 9:45, a noise control officer arrived. They had received - get this - *five* separate complaints from neighbours. Not one of them called Matt (who had tried to warn most of the neighbours that it would be happening), or came over to say they had a problem with it. This situation would have been ludicrous if it wasn't somehow entirely predictable. Within the value system of our enlightened, cosmopolitan suburb, it's not quite legitimate to play some light, airy jazz outside early on a Friday evening. As Simon pointed out, what *is* legitimate is starting up your buzzsaw at 8:00 am and beginning a chorus of hammering as you make an early start on your house extension. No one would ever consider complaining about that.

Friday, February 13, 2004

This is a quite good interview with the philosopher Peter Singer, and presents similar views to those I've been persuaded to arrive at recently.

I particularly like his minimalist characterisation of 'leftist' thinking as "being concerned with eliminating the sufferings of others and of the oppressed" rather than being about "collective ownership"

Singer argues that people who care about ethics need to engage with evolutionary psychology/sociobiology and acknowledge the role played by evolution in creating certain general tendencies for human behaviour. This seems reasonable, if only to avoid characterisation

Perhaps it is better to be 'in the camp' in order to better critique the lazy genetic determinism, conflation of 'is' and 'ought', general to particular and, above all, unfalsifiable speculation

His argument is essentially a Humean one

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I went to the ophthamologist yesterday for my three-month checkup after having laser surgery. I am now 6/6 in both eyes! After a month it was thought that I could be little undercorrected in the left eye, and "may want an enhancement", but it's improved. I now pretty much take for granted that I can see fine without any correcting lenses - which is quite bizarre when I stop to think about it.

This is part of my transition to cyborg-hood (tomorrow I should be getting the crown placed on my tooth implant). Soon I will be less man than machine - and once I start down the dark path it will consume me completely, etc. etc.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

It's sevens weekend in Wellington, and town is overrun by people from the provinces. You see them when you walk through the central city, big square-shouldered men with trim goatees and dark glasses leading their entourages along the pavement, pointing and saying things like "it's over there" and "down that street". They're cocky but wary, somewhat like a patrol of an occupying army.

Wellington likes to think of itself as the cosmopolitan capital, but we're only 164,000 people - small enough that an influx like this changes the character of the place. I resent it, quite frankly. It's not like walking through town normally is very inspiring; people here are mostly smug and uninteresting. But it's what I'm used to and comfortable with - there's at least the illusion of living in a city. And then all these people come and wander round like they bloody own the place.

I guess I'm partly just bitching because I'm not down at the Stadium drinking and partying with everyone else - conscientiously, I am saving-for-overseas.
It's two months until I go to S.America and I've paid for my tickets and insurance. So it's really going to happen. First, there's all kinds of shit I have to organise, like a Chilean working holiday visa, vaccinations, car repairs (automobiles: incredible, they really suck it out of you - it even costs money to get rid of them) and various other loose ends.

But whenever the reality hits home I am, to tell the truth, a little terrified. Where am I going to go? What am I going to do? Will I survive a whole year?

I'm somewhat worried that in four years back in New Zealand (most of which time I've spent antsy about getting away again) the all-consuming wanderlust has been dulled by creature comforts, a gradually rising income and the encroaching conservatism (or loss of naiivete?) of age. So, will I still be able to cope with the boring, depressing and nasty bits?

Last time I left New Zealand I told myself: "Things will be difficult; you will suffer. This is, in fact, what it's about" So they were and so I did, while I also had the best times of my entire life. But back then I was on some great odyssey of self-discovery - this time I suspect it might be harder to convince myself that suffering is the whole point.

I'll get there.