Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whither Romance

Playing with etymology I chanced upon the origin of the English word romance: it comes from the Old French romanz ("verse narrative"), related also to the modern French roman ("novel"), gaining its modern sense only in the 17th century. So is everything romantic at the core a fiction?

Did the relatively modern sense related to matters of the metaphoric heart, come to be accepted just in time for the industrial revolution to turn romance into prosaic mating?

Indeed, it strikes me that the industrial age brought about the most intense denial of such a scientific development in the form of something known as Victorian mores or customs, the Manicheism of the 19th century that survived into the 20th. The major change brought about by the sexual revolution, in whose ramparts I valiantly fought, was the beginning of an admission that a lot that happens with regards to romance is actually biological.

Romance involves a temporary suspension of the brain's critical functions, induced by what must no doubt be a flood of pleasure-inducing chemicals, so that we become convinced that this one other person, suddenly encompassed within our ego's expanding boundary, is astoundingly special and even necessary to our survival.

Thus, I would argue, the claim that certain public figures whose sexuality has become known are "sex addicts" is absurd. Once we have experienced it, we are all to some extent "addicted," or uncommonly willing to seek, the pleasure of romance.

The label gets flung at men -- Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, etc. -- largely because women have different biological goals.

Men are biologically set to impregnate as many women as possible, a goal that is fulfilled in sexual consummation. Women are biologically set to become impregnated, carry the potential human being to birth and then provide at least the indispensable nurture needed for the infant's survival, a goal that is best fulfilled in marriage or some form of long-term commitment.

Such a set of mechanisms explains why men move on quickly and women hang on.

Similarly, the pattern explains why men are eager to call a taxi right after orgasm, while women keep up the romance until they get a ring around their fingers. Biology also explain why the romance ends early in courtship for men and on the honeymoon's first night for women.

Women are just as "addicted" as men. Except ... can one really call what seems to me a natural process an "addiction"?

A therapist I know, who has no direct personal knowledge of either Clinton or Woods, claims that not only is there such a thing, but that the former president and the golfer are prime addicts. Funny, no women ever get mentioned, even though if there were such a thing as sex addiction, I might have postulated my friend, who is of the female persuasion, as an exemplar.

All of which is apropos of nothing more than writing a new post finally giving expression to an idea I have been mulling for some time. You may disagree. Of course, you would be wrong.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Argentina, Land of Insanity

I have closed the associated Ñoñario blog (all visitors are blocked) at the request of the author, who no longer wishes an Internet presence. He has concluded that Argentines -- his prime audience -- are so insane that even trying to comment on current events and history on a factual basis is an Augean task not worth the time and effort.

Let Argentina sink to yet new astounding new levels, through the ever inventive self-destructiveness of Argentines. I am not kidding.

This is a country that, around 1910, was still had one of the top ten economies in the world. Today it is probably the 150th or so.

In the 1920s and 30s the Argentine elite fought tooth and nail to keep its feudal and largely agricultural society intact and its economy a net exporter of cheap commodities and a net importer of expensive manufactured goods.

In the late 1940s and 50s, Perón turned needed attention to the nascent industrial union movement, but he misspent the nation's then-vast gold reserves on patronage pet projects.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the country was split between Peronists fighting for the return of their exiled leader and the middle class and oligarchy, ushering in military coup after military coup to prevent the return. Meanwhile, the peso lost value and the economy began to go to hell.

Unsatisfied with chaos, Argentines once again welcomed military rule in 1976. This time, the generals weren't kidding around: they made a proven 9,000 people disappear, kidnapped and tortured thousands of others, led the country to a disastrous war with a NATO member (the UK) and helped raise annual inflation to above 1,000 percent (that's thousand, not a typo).

By 1983, tired of military disasters, Argentines chose civilian ones instead. After the Mexican peso effect collapsed the Argentine economy briefly, a charlatan offered a supposed dollar-parity of the peso.

How was this illusion maintained? By selling off the state-owned airline, merchant marine, telephone company, oil company, etc., until all the family jewels were gone.

In 2001, the spell vanished and peso went from 1=1 peso to dollar to 3 pesos per dollar. One day you had a dollar, the next you had 33 cents. That's what Buenos Aires taxi drivers mean when they mention "the events of 2001" -- not 9/11.

So, having kept the country backward, devalued its currency and destroyed its economy and taken the country to a disastrous war, not to mention egregious human rights violations, what did Argentines elect new leaders to do? Of course, to incur an unpayable foreign debt in the billions!

Every time I've thought, "well, now, they've learned their lesson," they manage to surprise me by sinking to new and unsurpassed depths. They sank below hell decades ago!

Of course, try to tell that to an Argentine ... in Spanish. So now you know why my associate and I are sticking to English. The hell with them!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Operation Eyes

[Editor's note: By popular demand, here is a translation of a recent post from Desde Yanquilandia from the Spanish.]

A week or so ago, I finished reading two books I brought back from Argentina in January. The first was a "The Question in Their Eyes," a novel, and the second "Operación Traviata," a jourmalist's investigative account of the 1973 murder of Argentine unionist José Ignacio Rucci.

Both books fascinated me by their common underlying themes, justice and injustice in Argentina, violence and dark, the "decensus in averno" the country experienced in the seventies. The authors of both books, oddly enough, belong to the that generation was too young to have really experienced all that and they have in common an oblique approach to the era, yet one that in my opinion is reliable.

The facts in question in the novel (which I understand differs from the Oscar-winning adaptation to film, "The Secret in Their Eyes") occurs in the late sixties, mostly in the central courts building I passed by every school day on the 102 bus. There are references to things I remember and also details of adult life that I did not experience in the flesh while in Buenos Aires.

As for Rucci's murder, it was a fleeting memory of a news story that flashed briefly when I lived in Canada. Despite my ideological and moral sympathies toward the labor movement and collective bargaining, to me Argentine union leaders who always seemed to be thugs, having workers shut off electricity whenever they wanted to pressure the government, which for many years was the largest employer.

But all that, in the novel and journalist's account, came before military repression, the Montonero and the ERP guerrillas, and eventually the disappeared and Weimar-like inflation in Argentina. No to mention other things.

Neither author expends effort attempting to debate whether the military really were "gorillas," as Argentine opponents called them, or which faction of Peronism was right. Everybody knows that the conclusion to such debates might be yes, no, and none of them.

Both authors treat that tragic and hair-raising recent history as background noise. Their stories, far from ignoring the noise, end up explaining and conveying the everyman experience of those years in Argentina, without getting into polemics.

A common crime becomes a reflection on violence, the shortcuts that sometimes one has to take to see justice served and the ultimate probability that there is no solution to such conundrums, apart from love. Similarly, premeditated murder and treachery become the excuse to examine the evolution of political and paramilitary forces in 1973 as they were heading for disaster, with the lone and persistent reporter cleverly avoiding the argument traps to present a credible version of what actually happened.

For 200 years, ever since the populace first demanded open proceedings in the discussion of breaking with Spain, the Argentine people have been demanding to know what is going in the spheres of power and institutionalized violence that the state assumes in name of society. These books bring that demand a step closer to becoming reality.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Anti-Religionism vs. Agnosticism

Lately I've cyberfallen in with a crowd that is all too suspiciously eager to proclaim what a crock religion is in order to fly the flag of atheism, which even Richard Dawkins notes can only really be agnosticism. While I am an agnostic, I see no reason for triumphalism or hatred of religion, merely to proclaim one's position.

To be agnostic one need not replicate churches, crusades or -- Universe's Echo help us! -- an inquisition, with the variable "God" merely assigned a negative value. Nor need one feel too superior to religious people who, after all, put on their pants one leg at a time just like everyone else.

Yet this is what I often find.

In "real time," of course, plenty of agnostics go to Unitarian churches, Ethical societies and the like, which have bake sales and bazaars just like Our Lady of Mercedes or St. Elfric the Tasteful, only they don't have crosses anywhere. And they don't dare even whisper G-o-d.

Online, life is more polemical -- this is mostly about words, after all -- and it takes the form of ye olde high schoole "hate" clubs. We Hate Unfair Criticism has evolved into We Don't Thank Deities for the Deeds of Humans.

My suspicion is that these agnostics are just as religious (and illiterate about religion) as most religious people. They're just religious about their agnosticism. This is not to say that religion "wins" or religionists are better. Far from it.

My only contention, as someone who knows a thing or three about the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition and its foundational books and thinkers, is that it is not necessarily unreasonable to believe, and most real believers should experience doubts every now and then, just as it is not unreasonable not to believe.

Not believing is not a new thing to be, it's merely little more than simply not managing to wrap one's mind around notions such as a man-god, prayer, not to mention an invisible being of whom there is no direct evidence.

When one doesn't believe, one still is left with doubt, inquiry, tentativeness and the uncertainties of real science. Trust me. I know about this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why can't "VIPs" be regular people?

The heads of state and senior officials of 46 nations gathered here in Washington to discuss nukes turned up to be a major traffic and aural nuisance, not to mention hazardous to the woman cyclist who was killed by a Humvee in one of the 46 motorcades. Why can't VIPs travel like regular guys and gals?

Very Important People? In this day and age? When the only absolute monarch in the world resides in the Vatican and not even he is immune from well-deserved criticism? Pull-ease!

If these guys (and they are guys) were to get on the subway, who the hell would know who they are? Would you recognize Jans Balkende or Syed Yousuf Raza Gilan, let alone which countries they are from? Guys in suits, like every other man in Washington.

It would really be so much safer for these folks to travel like regular guys.

Suppose some deadly Canadian "terrorist" is following Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Isn't Harper much more of a target in a motorcade than, say, traveling in a beat-up Toyota? Who's going to believe such a car is carrying Canada's top elected official?

They could even wear typical American tourist gear as disguises. Imagine Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi wearing a National's cap, a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sneakers. What Abu Dhabian (is that how they are called?) is going to recognize his excellency in that get up?

They could even have a private moment of fun at the summit: a contest to see who's getup is the funniest, the sharpest, the most unexpected. "Hey, isn't that Lee Myung-bak in that joggers outfit?" "Wow, Nursultan, you can really carry cameras, can't you?"

And what a relief to drivers and pedestrians with hearing! Just a thought.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Smallest, easiest writing tool in the world

While I don't usually post about computers and software, since there are gazillions of techie blogs, I really want to plug the software adaptation by my good cyberfriend Little Girl, called Book on a Stick.

It's a tiny file you can run on any operating system on any computer capable of connecting to the Internet with a browser. If you're reading this, you can use it. What's it for? Writing.

Why get it?
  • It's totally free.
  • It runs very simply on your browser (Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, etc.) in any operating system (Linux, OS X or other Mac systems, Windows and more ...).
  • The files it produces can be read in any computer with any system.
Little Girl admits it's based on on a similar tool called Wiki on a Stick.

"I liked the program so much that I wanted to get inside it and mess with its nuts and bolts to customize it," she wrote me. "After fiddling with it and changing some things, I liked my version(s) of it better."

It's your choice. I'm just passing this on.

UPDATE: Little Girl informs me that Book on a Stick now lives here:

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Death (and Resurrection?) of the Catholic Church

The Vatican's Holy Week of spin notwithstanding, public regard for the Catholic clergy, from the pope on down, has never been lower in the lifespan of anyone alive today. Yet the child molestation debacle could yet be an opportunity to remake the Church into something more in consonance with the gospel.

Once there remains no Catholic who attributes absurd powers to men who put on their pants one leg at a time like everyone else, it might be possible to suggest that the clergy is the least significant part of Catholicism or Christianity -- just as the "good story" of one Galilean woodworker says.

Keep in mind that in the gospel, Jesus' main response to religion is frustration and outrage with the legalism and hypocrisy of the religious professionals of his time and his religion. There is no command from Jesus to go to church. Pray in secret, do good without claiming credit, Jesus advises.

The one clear set of gospel commands that have unmistakable moral consequences are those concerning feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and those in prison and so forth.

While the gospel story includes delegation of moral authority to the apostles, there is no incontrovertible establishment of a human organization resembling any of today's churches. Indeed, even in Catholic Christian teaching, the society of forgiven sinners who believe in Jesus Christ is an invisible entity of those imbued with the life-changing gift of faith.

In fact, there is already a vast army of people who do not bother paying attention to the latest papal utterance or Vatican decree. People who don't think they're smart enough to understand theology or interpret writings penned thousands of years ago. People who go about their prayers, their assistance to the needy and their struggles with faith quietly and without seeking the attention of others.

Aren't they the real Church, according to the gospels? According to the gospel, the heavens rejoice more over the repentance of one miserable wrongdoer than over the everyday lives of  church-going popes, priests or deacons.

Now granted, those who follow this blog know perfectly well that I, personally, don't even believe here was a historical Galilean woodworker named Yeshua bar Yosif who walked on water and was crucified. However, if there are people who believe not merely the historical facts, but the theological claims it would behoove them collectively to act and to be, as a group and as individuals, like a people who really believe.

If the pope really believed, wouldn't he be mortified at the thought that, because of his own personal error or omission or whatever, hundreds of boys were raped, some in the confessional? Wouldn't he and his minions be ashamed? Perhaps even fearful of the judgment to come?

Or do they really think that anyone wearing the priestly flea collar gets a Get Out of Hell Free card, valid no matter what they do, say or think? Or do they think that their God is intimidated by the harrumphs of the Vatican's cardinals, just as they assume ordinary mortals will be?

If people in the pews really believed, wouldn't they cease supporting the rotting and scandalous structure built in their name and with their money to the greater glory of the clergy? Just ignore it?

Perhaps, then the Catholic Church as we know it could die and rise in three days, as believers claim happened to someone long ago.