Warsaw, a Place on a Map

I just spent a couple of days in Warsaw for the first time in a few years (not counting some less than full days I’ve spent going to or coming from somewhere else). I’ll have a few more posts on the trip but the main thing I noticed was just how much more like every other goddamned place around it’s become.

What I think of now when I think of Warsaw…

I mostly avoided the main tourist trails but it was still tourists everywhere and tourists from everywhere. As usual tons of Americans and Israelis but also lots of French and Italians and Spanish speakers and Chinese, lots of Chinese. Even the antique flea market in Koło had lots more non-Poles than I ever remember seeing or hearing there (not just tourists but also obvious residents although I have no earthly idea where some of them were from…). The height of this probably came at an old indoor market which formerly sold food and household items has been re-outfitted into a hipster food court.

This is all normal and expected but I hadn’t quite realized it had gotten so far in the years since I was a frequent visitor…

Also… the group that surprised me was Georgians…. Georgian bakeries and restaurants have started to show up where I live but nothing like in Warsaw where there were probably over half a dozen within easy walking distance from my hotel. Now I’m wondering if they’re really Georgian or from other places using a better known ethnonym (at one point “Chinese” restaurants were invariably run by Vietnamese and Sushi places were run by Koreans).

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Baghdad in Brussels

First, I need to state clearly, I strongly support a lot of ideas of the EU and strongly admire it as an institution until about 10 years ago. I once attended a lecture by a distinguished sociologist (more interdisciplinary than that, but that’ll do for now) who claimed that the EU had done more to eradicate poverty than any other organization in human history. Great!

But over recent years I’ve come to think of it as having gotten lost – it has become ever more awkward and rigid and is no longer relieving poverty but enforcing it through useless austeriy programs (that everybody knows dont’ and can’t and won’t work). I’d hoped that Brexit might prove a shock to the system and inspire the EU to actually think of what citizens and residents (like me) think of it and reinvent itself, but… nope.

Anyway, over the last few years I’ve been involved in an annual project that involves translating selected academic articles from Polish into English. Mostly I enjoy this as it pays pretty well and the articles themselves are mostly interesting (this is by no means a given in translation – I’ve translated some incredibly tedious stuff….).

Unfortunately the translators have to choose which articles to do from a list of titles without having access to the articles themselves.and it’s possible to get burned – choose a promising sounding title and end up with something that’s actually pretty tedious.

And that’s just what happened to me this year. One article was about possible reforms of the EU and what these could mean for Poland – wow! Custom made for me.

And…. oh. my. god. it. is. the. most. horrible. thing. ever I’m slowly crawling through it like one of those dreams where you have to escape some peril and your legs won’t move… The author seems to take EU publicity at face value and the article so far is an analysis of a bunch of EU produced documents on future developments in finance and defense etc.

And it’s the most alienating thing ever. There is a multitude of similar sounding units inside and affiliated with the EU with confounding and similar names (it’s important to keep the European Council, the Council of Europe and the Council of the European Union straight).

Also EU jargon in any language is mystifying and impossible to predict. I’m spending massive amounts of time chasing down the English versions of EU documents to get terms and names straight and it’s incredibly frustrating. For example, at one point the Polish version uses the word pion (which might be translated as sector, or section or department or division depending on the context). After a long and frustrating slog of looking for the English version of the Polish version that the author used I find that in English it’s called….. window?!?

But that’s not the worst of it. I’ve had to download the English versions of a bunch of EU documents and I’m reminded of the American failure in Iraq…

Let me explain. Back when the American occupation was going through failure after failure, one analysis made a point. Those responsible for trying to figure out what to do on the ground never had any concrete ideas. All they had were powerpoint presentations. But it’s one thing to say “win the trust of the local population and use this to build local institutions” and something very different to come up with concrete proposals on how to do that and they were stuck at outlining steps with no content or idea about how to translate them into anything useful at ground level.

And that’s what these documents are, they’re all about strengthening cooperation in this field or harmonizing legislation in that field and and jointly funding some vast new bureaucracy that will have to be supervised by some new board that generates thickets of new impenetrable jargon and new reports that endlessly say very little. It’s the closest thing to duckspeak I’ve ever seen in the real world.

Interestingly nothing has convinced me that the EU is ultimately doomed to failure than documents on the bright future of the EU that the EU itself produced and endorses.

I don’t think this will happen in the next few years, but the system is clearly untenable and incapable of doing much more at this point than writing new reports on how invincible it is, as long as there’s increased cooperation and strenghtening of mutually agreed upon funding mechanisms for creating a new council that will advise EU bodies on ways of creating new reports….

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The Epstein Spider Hole

Even though I’ve loved conspiracy theories for as long as I can remember I’ve mostly not really taken them very seriously. I loved them as stories and admired the odd creativity and mental agility that went into making them (or was amused by just how deranged and unlikely others seemed). Don’t get the wrong idea, they were never a major interest of mine but one of a number of minor side interests that I liked to keep up with from time to time.

Before the internet it was hard to find access to anything except for the most widely known conspiracy theories that made it into paperback (like JFK) or UFO magazines or chance finds in used book stores. At one point I worked for a newspaper and we received a fair amount of weird conspiracy stuff.

In the early 90s as talk radio was taking off people began broadcasts on unconventional frequencies (not am or fm). A friend bought a radio just for the purpose of listening to them and we drove 60 miles once to check out a broadcaster and bookstore (run out of a bed and breakfast). Then the internet happened and there was far more conspiracy stuff in far too much to hope to keep track of but whenever I was bored or needed background noise to work various conspiracy broadcasts were in the regular rotation.

I can’t remember the first time I came across the conspiracies about western leaders and pedophile trafficking rings… I want to say sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s and I mostly discounted it as an echo of the child Satanic Abuse panic of the 1980s.

And then little by little pieces of news would catch my attention, these were often stories that would flicker briefly into the news cycle before quickly disappearing. Others would be mentioned with no names or context (like the child trafficking going on around UN ‘peacekeeping’ missions). None of them would make a major impression by themselves but the gradual and cumulative effect was hard to ignore. Other examples (like the Dutroux case in Belgium or the Jimmy Savile case in the UK) were too… prominent to disappear quickly. The broad outlines started suggesting themselves and recent years have just been snowballing. When pizzagate hit the news I had no problem believing the basic idea (although I thought the targets of pizzagate outrage were at most marginal fringe players).

The arrest of Jeffrey Epstein and the subsequent… event (suicide attempt? attempted hit? bid to get transferred to jail clinic?) has made this, if not mainstream, then better known among political junkies in ways that can’t just be ignored. I was recently listening to Chapo Trap House and they departed from cheering socialism and ridiculing conservative cultural ephemera to devote an entire episode to the implications.

The thing with conspiracy theories is that they can pull you in down a spider hole and a couple of the chapo guys have fallen in. They called it “Epstein Brain” the weird, addictive feeling of finding out just how inbred and intersecting the lives of the elite are, and puzzling out the stupefying rise of Epstein and the social web he created around himself like a plump spider.

I’ve resisted investigating the particulars too much because… once you figure some of this stuff out it’s just… exhausting. It seems quite probable that the elite of the US and (many? most? all?) other western countries are infested with morally corrupted sick freaks who get some kind of horrific satisfaction out of sexually abusing children in some kind of ritual fashion. In addition they can and will kill (like the 20 or so unexplained witness deaths in the Dutroux case….) to keep some kind of lid on their depravity.

Now we know this, now that we know that many of our leaders are literally monstrous and we can’t pretend it’s not going on…. what do we do with that?

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What I’m Watching: Minting Metaphors Edition

I’ve started watching La casa de papel (lit: The house of paper, much better than the dumb official English title) a Spanish netflix series.  I’m about a third of the way through the first season.

Let’s adopt the Euro.. what could possibly go wrong?

The basic idea is that a group of thieves with various skills are brought together by a mastermind with a diabolically clever plan to take over the Spanish national mint and print a bunch o’ dinero before escaping.

By the third episode it’s clear that the theme of the series is that economic policy and planning can never account for human nature with all of its flaws and virtues and that the most meticulous plans that don’t take human nature into account will always fail because human beings are human and not programmable walking apps.

I’m also thinking it’s a giant metaphor but I’m evolving on who’s who… At first I thought it was simple

gang: Spanish government

hostages: The Spanish public

police: The EU

That is I was thinking of it as a cautionary tale of how Spain was brought down by a corrupt government that wanted to go on a wild spending spree with the Euro and held the public hostage once that plan went belly up.

But that was too pat and not as subversive as I think the show might be (it’s hard to say Spanish series often start off with interesting premises and quickly devolve into soap opera nonsense).

Now I’m thinking that the metaphorical players are:

The gang: The EU (which is why the gang members’ nick names are all foreign cities like Berlin and Helsinki). Also, their clueless idea that the public supports them…

The hostages: The Spanish public

The police: The Spanish government, flawed and often stupid but really trying to rescue the public from their position of EU austerity hostages…

I might refine this or give up on the metaphorical meaning but its piqued my interest and I’ll keep on watching for a while…

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Belief Means Never Having to Say you’re Sorry

There’s an interesting interview (English translation / original German) with Carola Rackete, a captain with Sea-Watch an NGO that facilitates the business of human trafficking from Africa across the Mediterranean and into the EU. It’s really very illuminating, not about the migratin crisis (whatever you think about that won’t change in the slightest) but as a short profile in belief and idealism.

Rackete comes across as either unrealistically idealistic or simply demented. She thinks the half a million or so people who have been trafficked to Libya need to be brought into the EU as quickly as possible and sees no upper level limit on the number of migrants that Europe can or should accept. Meanwhile back in reality, the number of Sub-Saharan Africans who would like to move to North America or Europe is measured in the hundreds of millions….

But this doesn’t matter to Rackete, she’s an idealist and for true idealists there are no trade-offs, no negative externalities, no unforeseen consequences… there is simply the ideal and anything that furthers that is good and anything that doesn’t is bad. This is of course a kind of infantile way to see the world and Rackete doesn’t disappoint here either, she’s suing Italy’s very popular interior minister who had her briefly arrested after she docked without authorization in Lampedusa and collided with an Italian patrol boat trying to prevent this. In a quote that sounds like she’s regressing to the playground and wanting teacher to bring another student to heel, she offers:

“He has spread untruths, and I want him to be forced to delete these untruths on Twitter and Facebook. And for a judge to tell him: ‘You must never claim something like that again!'”

MaybeThere’s no reasoning or dialogue with someone like Rackete, you can only try to defeat them and do what you can to make sure they stay defeated. Most of the time nothing you can say or do with break though their idealistic armor. Apparently the interview has not been that positively received in Germany so there’s some hope of keeping her in check for the short term.

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More Merkel Murkiness

Well Angela Merkel was seen shaking uncontrollably in pubic for the third time in just more than three weeks… and spokesmen are still reassuring everybody that there is no cause for alarm.

I’m alarmed. There is clearly something going on and the secrecy is just inviting speculation. Either this is a non-threatening medical condition in which case she needs to come clean or something more serious is up in which case she needs to resign.

If the EU worked as it was once supposed to, then this would be an internal German matter and I wouldn’t care. But the way the EU works at present Germany is the motor of the economy and a lot of other social and political decisions and so there are no internal German matters when it comes to the German government.


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Barbarism on the Bay

Back in March of 2001, the Taliban blew up two giant statues of Buddha. There was an international outcry and almost no support for what was seen as theocratic and/or barbaric destruction of monuments that held incalculable cultural and historical value. Almost no one who wasn’t an actual member of the Taliban supported or tried to defend it.

Fast forward a little over 18 years and there’s another case of an important historic and artistic heritage under attack for ideological reasons and…. the response is not the same.

In the case of the Arnautoff murals at a San Francisco highschool quick checks at supposely ‘progressive’ sites (Slate, Salon, Huffington, Vox) reveal no coverage of the story at all. Almost all of the outrage at this seems to be coming from the Right which is more than a bit odd considering that the artist was a committed communist who was trying in his very small way to help forment revolution by depicting horrors from American history such as slavery and the killing of native Americans.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania arnautoff murals

Portrait of the artist as a well-dressed revolutionary.

Part of the problem seems to be a kind of pre-(post?)-modern thinking which cannot distinguish between representation and support, or rather understands any kind of representation as an active endorsement of the artist. Part of it seems to be the consumerist drive to reject any of the past that is not acceptable to the present (the consumerist past has been turned into an inexhaustible and infinitely malleable commodity that can be consumed or rejected at will).

To be frank, personally I’m not a fan of Arnautoff or the murals (in terms of style of execution) but they indisputably an important cultural and historical landmark and wantng to remove or cover them is the purest cultural barbarism.

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