Monday, July 31, 2006
"In my day the Internet was only used to download pornography." - Philip J. Fry
From Der Spiegel, October 28 2005:
From Pornography to Withdrawal
By ARIADNE VON SCHIRACH
The more pornographic our society becomes, the more it loses interest in procreation. As a result of the constant onslaught of stimuli, female desire in particular is faced with irreconcilable paradoxes. And men leave the role of the hunter to women.
The first bare bum I ever saw was Patrick Swayze's in the film "Dirty Dancing." It seemed incredible to me. Back then.
I saw the film again recently. It was the night after the great mambo, and the lovers kissed. Fade to the next morning. He gets up, and for a millionth of a second the camera flashes across a tiny fragment of his naked rear end. I rewound the tape. There was nothing more. I rewound it again. Could this be possible? Could this fraction of a second of naked skin have once triggered my desire? Dirty dancing? A rear end? Even the early morning talk shows are more titillating these days.
What happened, I wonder, as I watch Shakira's latest video, "La Tortura," with relatively little enthusiasm? She's been coated in some kind of black substance, and her body undulates endlessly on the floor. The answer, though, is clear. Bodies -- perfectly curved, scantily clad, and expectant -- are everywhere, but we have become increasingly indifferent. All we have left is arousal. Do we live in a pornographic society?
Pornography creates a desire that cannot be satisfied. Frustration becomes the dominant emotion, and depression is merely a sigh away. Rapper Akon may have filled the music charts for weeks with his lamentations over how lonely he is, but his lyrics seem to have hit a nerve. In a society in which the individual is relentlessly confronted with a massive cultural production of unattainable role models, we find ourselves increasingly under pressure to conform.
How beautiful they are! How slim, how supple and how tastefully dressed! And ever since we discovered what happens in bed with Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton, it became clear that everyone has good reason to be jealous. We are surrounded by tits, asses and washboard abs, and that's just the glittering surface of the TV and advertising world. The professionals have been surfing the Web long before the likes of Pamela or Paris arrived on the scene, and they're abundantly served by an estimated 1.3 million porno websites with a total of 260 million Web pages. All of this begs the question: What is to be done with our arousal?
In a club recently, a young, blonde bartender's T-shirt struck my eye. It was white, tight and sleeveless, and all it said was: PORNO, ADORNO. "Cool T-shirt," I commented and asked a friend to do a little research. I was curious. Is that the kind of T-shirt they sell these days in expensive boutiques? Did she even know who Adorno was? What would Adorno think about the T-shirt? My friend returned from his mission.
"She glared at me when I asked her if she knew who Adorno was. And then she said that she made the T-shirt herself."
When I walked into the back room of my local video store, I was surprised by the kinds of men I saw there. What I had expected to see was this vague image of an unkempt, disheveled type of guy, but what I saw taught me a lesson -- a well-dressed suit type browsing through the various specialties, completely without shame. And then there was this cute boy from trendy Berlin-Mitte, true to form with his Friday shoulder bag, absent-mindedly scanning the shelves of porn videos.
I shouldn't have been too surprised by the fashion update. After all, the overwhelming majority of customers for porn videos are men, and obviously the hippest guys are also men. Nowadays, the hottest bars in Paris are strip clubs offering lap dances.
But the French aren't the only ones to be open-minded about sex. Pornography has since become socially acceptable in Germany. But it's a development that raises some very important questions: Is this how Germany is wasting its potential? Is it the reason for the seemingly unstoppable aging of our society? Is masturbation primarily a male problem? Apparently not.
A masturbatory society
The typical reaction to pornography is masturbation. If we live in a pornographic society, it seems to follow that we also live in a masturbatory society. After all, people who spend so much of their time sitting in front of a computer with their trousers down or their skirts up have little time or interest left for relationships.
The omnipresence of desirable bodies and the knowledge that we will never look like that creates a paradoxical web of frustration and desire. Taking matters into one's hands is often the only way to resolve this conflict. Ninety percent of men and 86 percent of women do it regularly. And, in the last 30 years, masturbation among women has increased by 50 percent. In her film "Romance," French filmmaker Catherine Breillat portrays a woman who, unable to get what she needs from her partner, roams the streets looking for sex. Well, at least she gets out of the house!
In the 1970s, masturbation was more of a personal affair. In his 1972 performance piece titled "Seedbed," New York artist Vito Acconci spent three weeks masturbating constantly -- but hid himself in a wooden crate. Contemporary art draws a more indirect comparison between masturbation and alienation. In a 1999 series, artist Sarah Lucas uses casts of male arms with suggestively positioned hands to make her point. In one piece titled "No Limits!" the arm is placed in the appropriate location inside a car. The message? We are frustrated, and so we have two options: Either we masturbate to the point of developing tennis elbow, or we have to work on our sexiness. But there's more at stake than that. It's really about survival.
Obviously, success makes people sexy, but nowadays we have to be sexy to be successful. And once we're successful, we become even sexier. At some point, we qualify to procreate. Unless we're too old by that point, that is. But then again, age isn't such a big problem these days, since we're all getting younger, right?
Bare skin is old news
The upshot? Everyone has to be sexy. But the important issue is how we go about getting there. Women's magazines and the new men's magazines offer plenty of helpful tips. The biggest seller, of course, is losing weight, preferably by exercising. Selling fashion with bare skin is yesterday's news. When I drove past Berlin's Alexanderplatz recently, I saw an image of a beautiful blonde girl on a huge billboard. She was wearing a short blue skirt and a tight T-shirt with the words: "Still Single."
The T-shirts are probably a big seller. Self-marketing has become increasingly important, and it doesn't seem wrong to draw attention to one's status, that is, one's availability. But how do women really deal with this issue?
When you see them in Berlin's clubs at night, you can't help but feel that they're rather laid-back about it. They have great bodies, trendy hairstyles, good jobs or clearly defined ambitions, a drink in their hands and a glint in their eyes. The eyes of female hunters.
Perhaps emancipation has triumphed after all, I think to myself, as I watch a pack of these women standing at the bar. I notice that men approach them from time to time, often in a sort of mating dance, that the women smile at them charmingly, and that a woman occasionally heads away from the bar with a man. But the women always return, usually alone.
As the evening wears on, the self-confident pack gradually begins to break up, and the quality of the men performing their mating rituals slowly declines. But the women clearly feel that these men are sub-standard, despite the late hour and the fact that their feet are sore. So they return to the dance floor, or they leave the bar, leaving behind a whiff of frustration.
Where are our men, the beautiful faces seem to ask? Where are the intelligent, attractive and energetic men we deserve, we with our perfect style?
The writing is clearly on the wall. It's estimated that about a third of Germans regularly find sexual gratification on Internet porn sites. There are sites that offer a complete laundry list of pornography, something for every possible persuasion, artfully arranged in ways that even the Marquis de Sade would have appreciated.
Denial is the new strategy
Some sites advertise a guaranteed orgasm within 30 seconds. Of course, they offer little more than the equivalent of a meat rack. But then there are women like glamorous fetish star Dita von Teese, who understands what drives desire, female desire: production, disguise and seduction. "I'm not the girl who gets drunk at parties and pulls up her sweater," she says, opting for luxurious lingerie and the flawless pinup styling of the 1940s. But the perfectly made-up and obsequious faces of women who seem to be just waiting for an opportunity to moan, and who attach an alarming amount of importance to the perfect manicure, even when contorted in the most absurd of positions, have become universally available. After all, gratification is only a mouse click away, which helps to explain why sales in the worldwide Internet porn industry now reach into the billions.
And the outside world? Women are becoming hunters and men the hunted. Nowadays, a hot guy gets about as many covetous glances as a hot chick did in the past. This has created a completely new form of behavior: esthetic-narcissistic withdrawal. Wrapped up in their desirability, both self-created and produced by others, these men remove themselves from the market, seemingly able to satisfy their need to be touched by being ogled. Some take the opposite approach, becoming cool hunters and takers, radically acting on their genetic predisposition to sleep with as many women as possible.
The narcissistic type goes hand-in-hand with perfect style, a soft demeanor and the need for closeness, talking and cuddling -- and a healthy dose of sympathy. After all, it's not easy being a sex object. The metrosexual wimp is the commercialized form of the man whose price is unaffordable. At least for anyone but himself -- and his hand. Denial becomes the new strategy.
I went out recently with an agenda. I had planned to meet some friends, and I knew that HE would be there. I was determined, in a good mood and full of optimism. After all, I'd suffered through endless episodes of "Sex and the City," had adequately processed the role of the self-confident woman and, of course, had been hit on by this guy.
When I arrived at the club and saw the guy, the sparks began to fly. I looked around. The place was full of sharp, sexy guys in suits, beautiful girls in short tops. I shook my hair and focused on him. It turned out that he didn't have any money with him. Of course, I went to the bar and ordered a drink. Two drinks. Three. More drinks. I began to worry about my cab fare, but I knew that alcohol is indispensable for what I was planning to do.
Brothels for women
We talked. And talked some more. I tried to at least halfway satisfy tried-and-true conventions, taking care to flash him the occasional obsequious and fascinated glance. He talked some more. I began to despair. Hours passed, and eventually it was time to leave. It was also time to take action. I made sure that we would walk part of the way home, while the others in my group took a taxi. Everything seemed promising again.
But as we strolled along, I began to feel as if I were walking to school with a boy. He mumbled something about his poor sense of the practical. I thought about asking him if he wanted to kiss me. Impossible! How unromantic, how horrible, what fear of rejection! Finally, I chastely said goodnight, all the while fuming inside. Does one have to do everything oneself?
There are more radical approaches to dealing with the refusal to be masculine. Jenny F., a painter, says she has finally discovered a satisfactory solution. "They should have a brothel for women, a place where all the beautiful guys we all desire and can never get would be available for a small fee. The artificial nature of the encounter would benefit both the unsatisfied women and the men, whose role would finally be clearly defined. Besides, it would be the perfect opportunity for all those starving artists to earn a little extra cash."
Yes, it seems that the time has finally come to channel all that wasted virile energy. Indeed, Express in Cologne recently reported that the Pascha Brothel has augmented their staff with two men. Unfortunately, they're the excessively oiled bodybuilder types, the kinds of men that attract only the most frustrated of housewives.
What's wrong with men? Why are they suddenly in crisis, now that the new millennium has begun? A lack of role models? Unattainable roles? Are they too challenged by the perceived need to be alpha males, fathers and sensitive partners, all at once? Whatever the reason, the results are devastating. Insecure men are going to cosmetic surgeons for liposuction and, in some cases, having their supposedly deficient chests augmented.
It's estimated that up to ten percent of men are anorexic, a number that's steadily climbing. German men can now consult a number of men's magazines for beauty tips. It's the kind of pressure to which women are accustomed; after all, they've had to deal with abstruse expectations for centuries. But now women are back at square one, dreaming of Mr. Right and having fun with Mr. Wrong. And, in reacting to the shy coyness of insecure men, they've even adapted the classic masculine line: "What are you making such a fuss about?"
All of this raises the question of whether this is the goal of feminism or its perversion. Successful women, at least visually, correspond to the ideal of the more primitive male instincts. They're sex kittens with advanced degrees. Women know full well that the classic model of the submissive woman is still the most attractive to men. Is their current approach a more subtle form of submissiveness? And don't we have a better answer than to claim that we have now turned men into sex objects, thereby displaying precisely those behavioral patterns we have denounced for decades, all in the name of emancipation?
A pornographic society is an alienating society
Men, degraded to sex objects, are fighting back, even giving us some of our own medicine. Their new motto is "mancipation." Mancipation means that good-looking young bucks with gleaming white teeth, fully mindful of their market value, are enjoying all the female attention. And they're also screwing for all it's worth. Mancipation also means not letting all those supergirls get them down, holding their own and yet smelling good -- essentially distancing themselves from the metrosexual narcissists.
One thing is clear: A pornographic society is an alienating society, but at least some of the pressures have become egalitarian. We all dance around the golden calf of sexiness and the right look, and gone are the days when rich old men could have their pick of beautiful women. After all, a true princess deserves a true prince charming!
In the past, women were supposed to be pretty and men successful. Nowadays, everyone has to be able to do everything, and the pressure to satisfy that goal, along with the insecurity it brings, has doubled. Expectations rise while birth rates fall. Women have become a more horrific version of men, readily expressing their displeasure over lack of sexual compliance. Men have become insecure and have fled to the Internet. Both are approaching a state of narcissistic lunacy, and solidarity is something that seems attainable only among friends.
In his new book, "The Possibility of an Island," French writer Michel Houellebecq writes that the consistent pursuit of individuality must inevitably lead to the death of love, to a state in which we will be so in love with ourselves that we will no longer be capable of loving anyone else.
Is this true? Have we become the hardened hedonists our grandparents, the pope and the Frankfurt School of social theorists warned us against? Is there any hope left for the visually less-than-perfect players?
What can we do about it? Rediscover Christian values? Get excited about the multimedia pope? Not have sex before marriage, and hope that we find the right person? What about cuddle parties? Turning asexual? Multisexual?
We'll probably just have to take a chance on love, again and again until we get it right, because it's the only thing that is capable of liberating us from our hedonistic reference systems. Now that would be a true revolution.
Ariadne von Schirach studies philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
"I nafsu, sebab nafsu adalah seni." - U-Wei, in an interview with Off The Edge
From The New Statesman, December 2003:
In defence of lust
By SIMON BLACKBURN
Simple desire gets a worse press than love because it really does make fools of men, even of presidents. But Simon Blackburn sees its virtuous side
Broad-minded though we take ourselves to be, lust gets a bad press. It is the fly in the ointment, the black sheep of the family, the ill-bred, trashy cousin of upstanding members like love and friendship. It lives on the wrong side of the tracks, lumbers around elbowing its way into too much of our lives, and blushes when it comes into company.
Some people like things a little on the trashy side. But not most of us, most of the time. We smile at lovers holding hands in the park, but wrinkle our noses if we find them acting out their lust under the bushes. Love receives the world's applause. Lust is furtive, ashamed, embarrassed. Love pursues the good of the other with self-control, reason and patience. Lust pursues its own gratification, headlong, impatient of any control, immune to reason. Love thrives on candlelight and conversation. Lust is equally happy in a doorway or in a taxi, and its conversation is made of animal grunts and cries. Love is individual: there is only the unique Other. Lust takes what comes. Lovers gaze into each other's eyes. Lust looks sideways, inventing deceits, stratagems and seductions, sizing up opportunities. Love grows with knowledge and time, courtship, truth and trust. Lust is a trail of clothing in the hallway, the collision of two football packs. Love lasts, lust cloys.
Lust subverts propriety. It stole Anna Karenina from her husband and son, and Vronsky from his honourable career. Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic. In Schopenhauer's splendid words, almost prophesying the Clinton presidency, lust is the ultimate goal of almost all human endeavour, exerts an adverse influence on the most important affairs, interrupts the most serious business at any hour, sometimes for a while confuses even the greatest minds, does not hesitate with its trumpery to disrupt the negotiations of statesmen and the research of scholars, has the knack of slipping its love letters and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts.
So it might seem quixotic or paradoxical, or even indecent, to try and speak up for lust. The philosopher David Hume wrote that a virtue was any quality of mind "useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others". Lust has a good claim to qualify. Indeed, that understates it because lust is not merely useful but essential. We would none of us be here without it. So the task I set myself is to clean off some of the mud, to rescue it from the echoing denunciations of old men of the deserts, to deliver it from the pallid and envious confessors of Rome and the disgust of the Renaissance, to destroy the stocks and pillories of the Puritans, to separate it from other things that we know drag it down (for there are worse things than lust, things that make pure lust itself impure), and so to lift it from the category of sin to that of virtue. Do I really want to draw aside the curtains and let light disperse the decent night that thankfully veils our embarrassments? Am I to stand alongside the philosopher Crates the Cynic, who, believing that nothing is shameful, copulated openly in public with his wife Hipparchia? Certainly not, but part of the task is to know why not.
Some might deny that there is any task left to accomplish. We are emancipated, they say. We live in a healthy, if sexualised, culture. We affirm life and all its processes. We have already shaken off prudery and embarrassment. Sex is no longer shameful. Our attitudes are fine. So why worry?
I find myself at one with many feminists in thinking this cheery complacency odious, and not just because the expressions of a sexualised culture are all too often dehumanising, to men and especially to women, and even to children.
The sexualisation of our commercial culture is only a fascination with something that we fear or find problematic. When I lived in North Carolina, two- and three-year-old girls were usually made to wear bikini tops on the beach, and a six-year-old was banned from school because he attempted to kiss a fellow pupil. In states such as Georgia and Alabama, at least until recently, "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs" was regarded as obscene; possession, sale, purchase and so on were aggravated misdemeanours punishable by heavy fines and even prison. (England is not much better: girls can legally have sex at 16, but cannot buy vibrators until they are 18.) Like England, nearly all US states deny prostitutes anything like adequate legal protection, in spite of the overwhelming social ills that the prohibition creates.
In May 2002, advised by John Klink, sometime strategist for the Holy See, the Bush administration refused to sign a United Nations declaration on children's rights unless the UN's plans for sex and health education in the developing world were changed to teach that only sexual abstinence is permissible before marriage.
Within the US, the federal government spends about $1m (£574,000) of taxpayers' money annually on abstinence-only programmes of sex education, even though such programmes increase young people's health risks by making furtive and unprotected copulations their only option. Human Rights Watch has issued a report which says that abstinence-only programmes pose a threat to teenagers' health because information they need is denied to them in schools. A quote from a Texas teacher introduces the report: "Before [the abstinence-only programme] I could say, 'If you're not having sex, that's great. If you are, you need to be careful and use condoms.' Boy, that went out of the window." The report notes that federal programmes often lie to children, for example about the efficacy of condoms. This is not the sign of a culture that has its attitudes to sexuality under control. Similarly in the United Kingdom, the Church of England is tearing itself apart over two issues. One is that of gay priests, and the other of women bishops. This, too, is not the sign of a culture in which sex is understood as it might be. So there is work to do.
What a culture makes of "masculinity" or "femininity" spills into every corner of life. It determines how we grow up, what we become proud of and, therefore, what we are ashamed of or hostile towards. Our anxieties produce fantasies and distortion, aggression and ambition, violence and war. Fascism was perhaps the most obvious political movement that clustered around ideals of the Male, but it will not be the last. Islam's attitude to women, and to western women, need only be mentioned.
The landscape of human lust and human thinking is huge. People have devoted lifetimes to charting small parts of it. Even as you read, neurologists are plotting it, pharmacists are designing drugs to modify it, doctors are tinkering with its malfunctions, social psychologists are setting questionnaires about it, evolutionary psychologists are dreaming up theories of its origins, postmodernists are deconstructing it, and feminists are worrying about it. And a large part of the world's literature is devoted to it, or to its close relative, erotic love.
But the word lust has wider application than simply sexual desire: lust for life, lust for gold, lust for power. Perhaps sexual desire should be recognised as just one kind of desire among others. Saint Thomas Aquinas put to himself the objection that lust was not confined to sexual (venereal) matters:
It would seem that the matter of lust is not only venereal desires and pleasures. For Augustine says (Confessions ii, 6) that "lust affects to be called surfeit and abundance". But surfeit regards meat and drink, while abundance refers to riches. Therefore lust is not properly about venereal desires and pleasures.
He also worried that lust had been defined by previous authority as "the desire of wanton pleasure". But then wanton pleasure regards not only venereal matters but also many others. Therefore lust is not only about venereal desires and pleasures.
Aquinas was right to worry about getting this part of the subject straight. In many lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, lust is replaced by luxuria or luxury. This is not an innocent mistake, but reflects the urge to inject something morally obnoxious into the definition. If we associate lust with excess and surfeit, then its case is already lost. But it is a cheap victory: excessive desire is bad because it is excessive, not because it is desire. If we build the notion of excess into the definition, the desire is damned simply by its name. And the notion of excess is certainly in the wings. If we say that someone has a lust for gold, we imply more than that he simply wants money, like the rest of us. It is not just that gold puts a gleam into his eye, it is that nothing else does, or gold puts too bright a gleam.
There are many dimensions of excess. A desire might be excessive in its intensity if, instead of merely wanting something, we are too preoccupied by it or are unduly upset by not getting it. Alternatively, a desire might be excessive in its scope, as when someone wants not just power, but complete power, or not just gold, but all the gold. Sexual desire could be excessive in either way. It might preoccupy someone too much, and it might ask for too much. Don Juan illustrates both the fault of excessive preoccupation and that of encompassing too many objects. Yet many men might be hard put to know whether they differ from him in both ways, or only in one. Bill Clinton is reported to have gone into therapy in order to "cure" him of his sexual "addiction", yet the problem on the face of it (if that is the right expression) was not with the intensity of his desire but with its wayward direction and his limp self-control. And why did these minor faults, a subject of mirth in the rest of the world, arouse such obsessive hostility in conservative America? After all, it has long been known that more prostitutes fly into towns hosting Republican conventions than Democratic ones. Perhaps this sector of the American public does not like to think of its president, its God of War, stretched out in post-coital slump, victim of the calmly triumphant Venus, and with his weapons demoted to mere playthings.
It seems, if we talk of excess, that we ought to be able to contrast it with some idea of a just and proportionate sexuality; one that has an appropriate intensity, short of obsession but more than indifference, and directed at an appropriate object. People manage that, sometimes. Indeed, in one respect nature manages it for us, since eventually we calm down and go to sleep. So it would seem wrong to say that lust is in and of itself excessive. Indeed, when we are listless or depressed, or old and tired, we suffer from too little lust, not too much. And judging from our actual choices rather than our moralising, we like lust well enough. Advertising agencies fall over themselves to suggest that their products enable us to excite lust in others, but nobody ever made a fortune from prescribing ways of making ourselves repulsive.
There is another way in which lust might seem in and of itself excessive, admitting of no moderation. Eating relieves our desire for food, our hunger. And we combine it with other activities, such as talking or reading or watching television. But the activity that relieves our lust typically blocks out other functions. It doesn't literally make us blind, even temporarily, and we would be quick to desist if the wrong visitor arrived. But it is as close to ecstasy - to standing outside ourselves - as many of us get. As the body becomes flooded with desire, and still more as climax approaches, much of the world is blotted out. The brain requires a lot of blood - hence the saying that men have two organs that require a lot of blood, but only enough for one at a time. There is a literal truth here, and not only about men, which is that sexual climax drives out thought. It even drives out prayer, which is part of the church's complaint against it.
Perhaps it does not have to be like that: there are records of Chinese voluptuaries who could dictate letters while coupled to their partners. That is certainly virtuoso, but deficient in at least one of the pleasures of exercising lust, which is the abandonment itself.
It is a good thing if the earth moves. There is no such thing as a decorous or controlled ecstasy, so we should not persecute lust simply because of its issue in extremes of abandon. Indeed, such experiences are usually thought to be one of life's greatest goods, and a yardstick for others. Even in the rigid atmosphere of Catholic sanctity, the best that mystics could do to express their ecstatic communion with God or Christ was to model it upon sexual ecstasy. The metaphors are the same: in the ecstatic communion the subject surrenders, burns, loses herself, is made blind or even temporarily destroyed, suffering a "little death". Saint Teresa of Avila talks of an "arrow driven into the very depths of the entrails and the heart", so that the soul does not "know either what is the matter with it or what it desires", and still more she talks of the experience as a distress, but one "so delectable that life holds no delight that can give greater satisfaction". So it was not only Bernini who was driven to depict her in terms of orgasm. Her contemporaries were also hard put to know whether this was the work of God or the devil, and it was a close call when they finally decided on the former.
The interesting thing is the association of such a state with communion and knowledge. (Think of the biblical equation of having sex with someone and knowing them.) Hard-nosed philosophers are apt to look askance at incommunicable knowledge, and as the mystic's claim to know something that the rest of us do not seems unverifiable, it is easy to remain sceptical. However sensible it may be in the case of divine ecstasy, it is harder to dismiss the association in the case of sexual ecstasy. Are all experiences of sexual communion, of a fusion of persons, to be dismissed?
Let's return to Aquinas's own, scarcely reassuring, answer to the problem of definition.
As Isidore says, ". . . a lustful man is one who is debauched with pleasures". Now venereal pleasures above all debauch a man's mind. Therefore lust is especially concerned with such like pleasures.
The first objection to this is that it seems wrong to say that a lustful man is one who is debauched with pleasure: he may or may not be, depending on his luck. And in any case, sexual desire is rather more acute just when we are not debauched with pleasure. A sated man or woman is no longer lustful. And then the word "debauch" is scarcely neutral, implying riot and ruin. Finally, it is not true that venereal pleasures debauch a man's mind. Newton seems to have been fairly ascetic, but Einstein was certainly not.
So we must not allow the critics of lust to intrude the notion of excess, just like that. We should no more criticise lust because it can get out of hand than we criticise hunger because it can lead to gluttony, or thirst because it can lead to drunkenness.
Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at Cambridge University. This is an edited extract from his book Lust, part of a series of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins, published by Oxford University Press.
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Der Spiegel: Your government is spending another $75 million to support Iranian opposition groups and radio channels. In the old days of the Cold War that was called propaganda, what do you call it today?
Karen Hughes: It is an effort to communicate with the people of Iran directly because we want to make very clear that we support their aspirations for freedom. We hope that one day the people of Iran will have a government that is worthy of them. What do you mean by propaganda?
Book review: The Caged Virgin
From The New Statesman:
Enemy of the faith
By FAREENA ALAM
Review of The Caged Virgin
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Free Press, 208pp
Are Muslim women really caged virgins, victims of an inherently misogynistic theology? In claiming this, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is guilty of grossly misrepresenting Islam, writes Fareena Alam
It's obviously what I've been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader - armed with Enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom - swooping into my harem and liberating me from my "ignorant", "uncritical", "dishonest" and "oppressed" Muslim existence. At least that is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I've been waiting for. Her latest book, The Caged Virgin, is a collection of essays intended to unveil the sexual terrorism she says is inherent in Islam. In reality, it is a smash-and-grab aggregation of inconsistencies, platitudes and poor scholarship.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Somalia in 1969, but grew up in Kenya. As a young adult she moved to Germany, and later to the Netherlands, allegedly to escape a forced marriage. She learned Dutch and gained a university degree in political science. She soon became a pro m inent and controversial politi-cian, a brown face made welcome by her shrill denunciations of Islam, the Prophet Muham - mad and Europe's "backward Muslims". Last year, Time magazine hailed her as one of the world's "100 most influential people". The Economist described her as a "cultural ideologue of the new right".
However, the publication of The Caged Virgin couldn't have come at a worse time for Hirsi Ali, a woman who has built her career on portraying herself as a victim. In May, a Dutch television documentary alleged that her story didn't add up. The programme's makers (who travelled to Kenya to speak to her family and those who knew her as a child) claimed that Hirsi Ali had lied to enter the Netherlands and had fabricated her traumatic past. The political friends who had made her the darling of the Dutch right speedily retreated from her side. As the author and academic Jytte Klausen, who knows Hirsi Ali, recently claimed: "She wasn't forced into a marriage. She had an amicable relationship with her husband, as well as with the rest of her family. It was not true that she had to hide from her family for years."
Now that doubt has been cast on the personal history Hirsi Ali relies on to give her arguments authority, her new book reads more like a whimper than a bang. Practically all of her conclusions are based on her own "tortured" experiences and observations of Islam. Besides the superficial references to Koranic verses and the occasional Prophetic saying, she provides little evidence to back up her claims that the Muslim woman is a caged virgin - sexualised, segregated, denied human rights - and that Islamic theology is responsible for this. Hirsi Ali is not breaking new ground. Others, such as the controversial Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, have been here before, except their work is meatier, mak-ing reference to classical texts and engaging in important historical debates. The Caged Virgin is the cheap tabloid version: accessible, flimsy and forgettable.
The sad thing is that many of the concerns that Hirsi Ali raises - forced marriage, genital muti lation, sexual violence, lack of education, economic underachievement and the obsession with static gender roles - are genuine challenges facing Muslim (and many other) women. She makes some thoughtful points, yet they are lost among the inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions. To demonstrate Islam's obsession with female sexuality, for example, she quotes the Koranic verse calling on women to behave modestly, but conveniently omits the first part, which demands the same of men.
The picture Hirsi Ali paints of Gestapo-like Muslim homes is laughable. She writes that "lies are constantly being told about the most intimate matters . . . Children learn from their mothers that it pays to lie. Mistrust is everywhere and lies rule." Perhaps she wrote this so that she would have a defence when the facts about her own life were questioned.
Reading Hirsi Ali, you would think that she and a handful of other enlightened women, such as her good friend Irshad Manji, are the only ones who have figured all this out. Apparently, most Muslim women are condition from birth not to think. This misrepresentation does a tragic disservice to the women Hirsi Ali seeks to liberate. It is strange how many times she writes "we Muslims" in her book. From someone who claims not to be a "Muslim", such appeals to sisterly solidarity are disingenuous. It is a not-so-clever attempt to lend authenticity to her argument: clearly, if a Muslim criticises her own religion, then that religion must be bad. But Muslims are not homogeneous - they do not all think, act and believe in the same way. Islam manifests itself through a vast array of experiences. As a British Muslim, for instance, I am as western as I am anything else.
Hirsi Ali has fallen into the trap of identity politics. Being a Muslim is a religious moniker; Muslims are not a tribe or a race. You don't have to be Muslim to criticise Islam or its followers, but at least be honest about it.
Long before Hirsi Ali arrived in Europe, Muslim women were fighting against ignorance, religious prejudice and cultural misunderstanding. They are still pushing the boundaries, playing an increasingly important public role and advocating real long-term change - slowly but surely. For groups such as London's An-Nisa Society, which pioneered programmes in sexual health, domestic violence and mental health two decades ago, Islam is a potent and powerful ally. Many Muslim women want to maintain a strong, spiritual connection with their faith, a choice Hirsi Ali seeks to deny them. These brave women sadly do not have the luxuries of monetary resources, bodyguards, spin-doctors and PR agencies that she takes for granted.
Hirsi Ali recently said that her audience consists mainly of Muslims. Nonsense. Her hatred of Islam and her patronising attitude towards Muslim women who disagree with her make her ideas palatable only to the "white liberals" whose prejudices she reinforces. In fact, anyone who works with Muslim communities, respecting their faith but seeking positive change, is accused of forging a "satanic pact . . . [making] their living by representing Muslim interests, extending aid to them, and co-operating with them in their development".
For Hirsi Ali, the answer is clear: Islam is at fault and needs to be discarded. But her experiences are not mine, nor those of the many Muslim women I work with every day. We are to believe, it seems, that the obsession with female virginity is at the heart of every Muslim malaise. Such pseudo-sociological nonsense wouldn't pass muster in an A-level exam.
Hirsi Ali also suffers from historical amnesia. She is so caught up in her undergraduate political science training that she can't see beyond Kant, Spinoza and Voltaire. "Reading works by western thinkers," she says, "is regarded as dis respectful to the Prophet and Allah's message." Who says this? Nor does she add that the catalyst for the Enlightenment lay in the knowledge-transfer from Muslim civilisation to Europe through Andalusia. The notions of female personhood, independence of wealth and right to education are as old as Islam itself. The biographies of scholars and saints during the classical age include thousands of female ulema (religious scholars), with many leading universities being established by wealthy women of means.
The Prophet Muhammad's first love was a woman 15 years older than himself. Khadija was not only a widow (a non-virgin, I'll have you know), she was an honest and trusted businesswoman who proposed marriage to the young Muhammad. They lived together for 27 years, until she died.
Fast-forward to today, where I am surrounded by loving Muslim families that defy Hirsi Ali's statements. Even Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based cleric whom she condemns, is married to a sprightly senior al-Jazeera journalist. I recently met her at a conference in Istanbul. She defied every stereotype, sitting at the head table with her husband and other leading scholars.
Muslims, frankly, pay too much attention to Hirsi Ali. She isn't interested in a genuine engagement with Muslim women. She is content to be an outsider posing as a co-religionist. This may win her favour elsewhere, but not in the communities she seeks to reform.
Incidentally, she has just had her Gloria Gay nor moment. The Dutch political establishment now wants her forgiveness and has put pressure on the immigration minister to reverse her decision to take away Hirsi Ali's citizenship. But Hirsi Ali has found new chums at the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-con high temple in Washington, DC. The trouble is that it is Hirsi Ali herself who is caged - by her lack of scholarship and her myopic sense of identity and history. These credentials may carry weight with the neo-cons she will now advise. They ought not to with the rest of us.
Fareena Alam is editor of the Muslim magazine Q-News
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
'Crash' makers still not making money
From The New York Times, July 25, 2006
‘Crash’ Principals Still Await Payments for Their Work
By SHARON WAXMAN
When a movie costs $7.5 million to make and takes in $180 million around the world, it seems logical to think that the people who created the film would have become very rich.
With “Crash,” this year’s Oscar winner for best picture and last year’s sleeper hit at the box office, that has not been the case.
The movie’s co-writer and director, Paul Haggis, has so far made less than $300,000 on the film, a pittance by Hollywood standards. The eight principal actors in “Crash,” including Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle, have been expecting large checks for months, after deferring their usual fees in exchange for a percentage of the film’s profits. Recently, their representatives say, they each received checks for $19,000.
The wheels of Hollywood’s money machine always turn too slowly for profit participants, players who agree to take a slice of a film’s revenues in lieu of large salaries up front.
But the pace of payments on “Crash” has especially disappointed those who deferred and reduced their salaries in 2004 to get the movie made.
The pressure has led Lionsgate, the domestic distributor of “Crash,” to try to broker a deal to advance payments to Mr. Cheadle and Mr. Haggis, in the interest of maintaining good relations.
That deal has so far faltered and is contributing to tensions between the cast, producers, writers and director of the film on one side, and Bob Yari, the producer and financier in charge of disbursing payments, on the other. In particular, representatives for Mr. Cheadle, a producer and leading actor on the film; Mr. Dillon; Mr. Haggis; and his co-writer Bobby Moresco have been pressing for explanations as to why payments are so slow in coming.
“We haven’t audited, so we can’t tell if it’s right or wrong,” said Peter Dekom, the lawyer for Mr. Haggis and Mark Harris, another producer, who said he had recently hired an accountant to conduct an audit. “But it’s always a big deal when you go out in the world, and you look at the video units sold, the $55 million of domestic box office, the fact that the movie’s doing well overseas, and then you look at the accounting statements, and it’s Hollywood accounting.”
Mr. Yari, a relative newcomer to Hollywood — “Crash” was his first major hit — said he was aware of the dissatisfaction, but that he was completely up to date on payments.
“They have been correctly paid,” he said in a recent interview. “They will be paid more. This is the process. We’ve done everything aboveboard. If we wanted to not pay people and have them sue us, we wouldn’t pay them at all.”
Mr. Yari said that monies collected from Lionsgate went into a fund before being disbursed, further delaying payment to profit participants, and that little money had come in from foreign distributors, though the film long ago ended most of its theatrical runs. He also said that Lionsgate, which has so far paid him slightly more than $10 million, owes him another $10 million. A Lionsgate executive said that a large sum was expected in the fall when the studio’s pay-television deal with Showtime yields revenues.
The rising tension is the latest knot in a tangle of strained relations over “Crash,” a movie about racial tension in the traffic-clogged sprawl of Los Angeles. Mr. Yari has sued two of his co-producers, Cathy Schulman and Tom Nunan, for breach of contract, while they have countersued for fraud and a similar breach. A lawyer for Ms. Schulman said she and Mr. Nunan have been paid no producer fees as yet.
“We certainly haven’t been paid on ‘Crash,’ we haven’t even seen a statement, and you’d think we’d see that,” said Melvin Avanzado, Ms. Schulman’s lawyer. “Everyone is chomping at the bit because the movie’s a success.”
A lawsuit filed by Mr. Yari against the Producers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over their procedures for assigning producing credits was recently dismissed, though Mr. Yari has said that he intends to pursue the case further.
Mr. Yari is also in an accounting dispute with one of two central financiers of “Crash,” DEJ Productions, which is now owned by First Look Studios.
“We’ve amicably exchanged statements, and we believe we need to go to an audit,” said Henry Winterstern, the chief executive of First Look. He said that Mr. Yari owed him money from an earlier movie, “Matador.” Mr. Yari said he knew that DEJ was “unhappy.”
In Hollywood it is not unusual for squabbles to erupt over dividing the spoils when a small film becomes a very big hit. But part of what is creating bruised feelings with “Crash” is the sense among the starring cast members that their initial sacrifice has not been acknowledged with a gesture, whatever the precise state of collection accounts.
“You’d think that for a movie that won best picture, what you would do is write the actors a check against their profits, or you give them a car, or something,” said a representative for one of the leading actors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his client had barred him from speaking on the record. “That would be the classy thing to do.” He added: “The money is dribbling in. It’s almost offensive how little money it is.”
The deal to advance money to Mr. Haggis and others has stalled because Mr. Yari declined to give a letter agreeing that payments be directed to the creative talent, according to a Lionsgate executive. Mr. Yari said he did not know Lionsgate required such a letter.
Documents show, and the principals’ representatives say, that so far none of the profit participants has received more than a low six-figure sum for their work. Moreover, Mr. Haggis and Mr. Moresco were both in dire financial straits when they made the movie in 2004, but deferred their salaries — about $94,000 and $47,000, respectively — to gain approval to move ahead on the film. The deferred salaries were paid in the middle of 2005, after the film broke even, and the money made its way through the accounting system.
But by the time the Academy Awards rolled around in early March, Mr. Moresco and his wife, Barbara, for example, were still short of cash, living in a rented house in Burbank, Calif. Mr. Moresco and Mr. Haggis both declined to comment for this article.
“Crash” has taken in $55 million at the domestic box office and $39 million in foreign box office sales. It has sold 5 million units — about $85 million worth — of DVD’s.
Mr. Yari raised a large part of the production budget from a German tax fund, the rest from banks and with guarantees for video distribution from DEJ. After seeing the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2004, Lionsgate bought all domestic distribution rights for $3.3 million, with premiums added should “Crash” become a hit.
The principal players who deferred and reduced their salaries are due from 2 to 4 percent of Mr. Yari’s profit pool, according to people familiar with the deal. The percentages are tied to tiered benchmarks of the film’s revenues.
Mr. Yari said that payments had been slowed by the fact that the German tax fund had to approve them, which had added months to the process.
But Mr. Dekom, the lawyer for Mr. Haggis, said he believed that Mr. Yari had more money than had been paid out. “To the extent that Bob Yari is sitting on cash and not disbursing it to people who put their hearts and souls into the movie, that would be wrong,” he said. “At the very least they should accelerate payment.”
Monday, July 24, 2006
Article 11 forum in J.B.
Both sides claimed victory in last Saturday's Article 11 forum at Hotel Selesa in Johor Bharu. Demonstrators started gathering at near by New York Hotel at around 7, more than two hours before the forum started.
The anti-Article 11/IFC protest started just before the forum began at around 9.15. The forum ended at 11.15, much earlier than originally planned, but the panel managed to finish presenting their papers.
It was a pretty much succesful forum, as only one question (or very annoyingly long and incoherent speeches that we can hear in such programs) - by a Parti Keadilan Rakyat activist - during the Q&A session made any sense.
The protesters - made up of largely PAS members, a few Jamaah Islah Malaysia members and others - also claimed victory, as the forum went on in a rush and was ended much earlier.
There was also a half-hearted attempt by Umno to join the protest. A few Umno flags were displayed at a safe distance from the proper demonstration and taken down much earlier before the protest ended.
By Malaysian standard, it was a fairly democratic event as both sides were allowed to speak - and shout - their minds.
"It's good that both sides claim victory," said Ramdas Tikamdas after the forum.
More photos and stories in the next issue of Siasah.
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Dodging Traffic and Pitfalls in Gourmet Georgia
From The New York Times, July 19, 2006
By MATT GROSS
Georgians are the worst drivers in the world. I say this after having dodged Hondas in Hanoi, angry Argentine drivers in Buenos Aires and out-of-control buses in Albania. But a Georgian taxi driver will reverse his cracked-windshield Lada up a highway off-ramp, simultaneously fiddling with the broken tape deck and text-messaging his mistress. So what if he hits a pedestrian along the way — that’s assuming, of course, that he even knows where he’s taking you.
Still, this is progress. It was not long ago that this former Soviet republic was embroiled in civil war, crime and corruption. But nowadays, thanks in part to the so-called Rose Revolution of 2003, which led to widespread reforms, travelers like me can fly from Istanbul to Tbilisi, Georgia’s cosmopolitan capital ($450 round trip on Turkish Airlines), without worrying about safety.
I came here to enjoy cheap but yummy food and wine, intellectual cafe society and sunny hospitality. Thanks to readers’ comments, I found what I was seeking almost immediately. I checked into the Hotel Charm (11 Chakhrukhadze Street, 995-32-985-333; www.hotelcharm.ge) an old house run by the friendly Ninidze family. My top-floor room, with sloping wooden ceilings and antique furniture, was $40 a night.
I had my first Georgian meal at Maidan (2 Mtkvari Right Bank, 995-32-751-188), a subterranean restaurant in Tbilisi’s atmospheric Old Town with arched, vaulted brick ceilings and comfortable pillows. The chakhapuli (goat stew with tarragon and sour plums) was fabulous. Along with a good glass of Teliani Valley wine, it cost 40 lari, or about $19 at 2.19 lari to the dollar. I was shocked to spend so much, but it would be the most I dropped on any meal all week.
My postprandial stroll took me down Sharden Street, lined with inviting cafes and galleries. I stopped into the Nini K. boutique (www.ninikny.com) to admire the quirky knit hats that sell for 150 to 300 lari in Tbilisi. Nini K. herself was there. She’s a svelte, stylish Georgian who spends most of the year in Manhattan where her hats are carried by Bergdorf Goodman. We struck up an easy conversation about our favorite downtown bars. Before long, she invited me to a party at her country house — no one stays in Tbilisi during the summer, she said. Well! Here was the Georgian hospitality I’d heard so much about.
The next evening, she drove me out to Tzerovani, a hillside village about 30 minutes from Tbilisi. I met her friends, all of whom spoke excellent English and had spent years, if not decades, in New York City. As we emptied bottles of whiskey, vodka and wine (I’d splurged on a gorgeous 48-lari saperavi) and danced to the Clash and Black-Eyed Peas, the evening began to feel unsettlingly familiar. Was this Georgia or Chelsea?
Outside the hillside house, however, there was a Georgia I could only follow in English-language newspapers. Two regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were fighting for independence. A murder trial that implicated high-level officials in the death of an opposition politician had just ended with a verdict that hinted at government interference. Unemployment was rife, and crime and inflation were on the rise. The Rose Revolution, it seemed, had yet to bloom.
As a tourist, however, I saw none of this. My Tbilisi was a city of cafes and Old Town architecture (endless arches and sagging balconies), where even the Soviet-era concrete blocks evoked a certain joie de vivre. And if their food was any clue, Tbilisians certainly enjoyed life. The cuisine was a rainbow of herbs and meats, with crushed walnuts thrown into just about everything. After a glass or three of luscious wine (don’t believe the myth that it’s insufferably sweet), Tbilisi felt like a forgotten European capital, only cheaper and with people who were genuinely excited to show me their country.
Again and again, I found myself invited to participate in workaday routines that would be unthinkable in Paris or Vienna. One afternoon, I joined a group of students as they watched “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” then fielded questions about American pop cultural ephemera like “Doogie Howser, MD.” At the state history museum, I asked a French-speaking docent if I could help the museum director with his archeological dig at Dmanisi, where he’d discovered the oldest human remains outside Africa. Sure, he said, the dig would start in a week.
And one Friday evening, as I took photographs of diners and drinkers along the trendy Erekle II Street, a young woman, whose name was also Nini, invited me to join her 18th birthday celebration. She offered me a shot of vodka and peppered me with questions: Why had I come to Georgia? Did I like Georgia? What did I think of Georgian women?
Next thing I knew, we were at Night Office, a club inside the right-bank anchorage of the Baratashvili Bridge. As we danced to progressive house, my right knee twinged with every awkward move, and I began to feel as old as Tbilisi itself. Luckily, these teenagers had curfews and by 1:30 a.m., the night was over.
The next morning, it was time to make like a Tbilisian and escape the city’s summer heat. Accompanied by Amanda and Jay, a pair of Peace Corps volunteers I’d befriended over breakfast at the Hotel Charm, I set out for Kazbegi in northern Georgia, where the 14th-century Tsminda Sameba monastery stands atop a 7,119-foot peak — a national symbol of independence and determination. As usual, the journey was cheap but slow: a 6-lari taxi to the Didube bus station, followed by a 3.50-lari ride in a marshrutka, or minibus, that was so crowded I had to sit on a wooden stool for most of the four-hour trip.
But even from my thrombosis-inducing seat, I could see the mountains. Imposing and steep, the Great Caucasus Mountains are carpeted with pea-green grass on which herds of sure-footed cattle graze, interrupted by crisp, rushing streams. I began to understand why, as one reader wrote me, “the army of the largest country in the world has been unable to tame an area smaller than Long Island.”
Gazing at them from the minibus was one thing; climbing them — unprepared and out of shape — is another. Despite the supposed presence of two well-marked trails, we opted to create our own shortcut, and soon found ourselves ascending the crumbly soil of a 65-degree cliff, cursing and sweating and straining. A single misstep onto loose slate, we knew, could plunge us to our deaths. Had we survived the hazardous traffic of Tbilisi only to be undone by a mountain climb?
But like Georgia itself over the last 15 years, a little persistence goes a long way. We kept ourselves low to the ground and made each step with care, and soon the monastery came into view, crowded with people who had followed the easy, obvious paths. We collapsed exhausted on the grass and spent the day watching bearded men parade about with swords in their belts, children ride horses bareback and the faithful sing otherworldly hymns. I felt more alive than I had in years, and as we devoured our well-earned picnic of bread, cheese, sausage and pickles, I wondered: Do we really have to come back down to earth?
Next stops: Kyrgyzstan and Urumqi, China.
Ché Guevara with Oil
From Der Spiegel, July 17, 2006
By ERICH FOLLATH
A worldwide model for leftists, a friend of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and an adversary of the US president, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a gifted populist -- and highly controversial as a reformer. He has used his country's oil riches to help transform slums from Caracas to New York.
If there were an Oscar for the worst insults among politicians, Hugo Chávez and his team and United States President George W. Bush and his administration would share the award.
The Venezuelan president has certainly pulled no punches in cursing, slandering and humiliating the gringos to the north. He alternately refers to the US president as the "biggest terrorist on earth" and "an idiot." In Chávez's opinion, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's problem is her "fascist" orientation and that "she is sexually frustrated." He says that although he is certainly capable of helping out in that department, he isn't really interested.
In return, Rice has called the Venezuelan a "demagogue." George W. Bush calls Chávez a godfather of terror. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likens him to Adolf Hitler. And Pat Robertson, the Republican televangelist and a one-time potential candidate for the vice-presidency, has even openly suggested that the CIA "take him out."
Chávez, 51, threatens to cut off oil shipments to the superpower, suggests that he might annex a Caribbean island or two and even mentions the possibility of forging an "anti-imperialistic alliance" with the Iranians. The US, for its part, conducts war games with its allies off the Venezuelan coast. These days, it's considered a good day in Venezuelan-American relations when Washington's ambassador in Caracas is pelted with tomatoes and little more than a sharp diplomatic row ensues.
With the exception of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the charismatic politician from Caracas is about the only public figure on earth so intent on goading the Bush administration. But unlike the other two problem children, Chávez is playing with fire at an uncomfortably close range. In fact, he's practically in the superpower's backyard, with his country separated from the US coastline by only about 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) of ocean. He's also doing his best to stir up all of South America against the United States and pull the Latin world leftward. Still, Chavez is anything but a powerless caudillo or an insignificant backyard politician: He rules an important state that is practically swimming in oil. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and, with the exception of Canada's oil sands, has the most important reserves in the Western Hemisphere.
A dependent Washington
As if that weren't enough, the Americans are also relatively dependent on this antagonist on their southern flank. Only Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia each supply the US with slightly more black gold than Venezuela. The US derives 11 percent of its oil imports from Chávez country, a significant share in these days of shrinking resources. And all across America, people tank up at gas stations owned by the Bush administration's adversary. Citgo, with its 14,000 filling stations in the United States, is entirely owned by the Venezuelan government.
The Venezuelan president has been flinging new provocations at Washington practically on a weekly basis. During a state visit to China, Chávez encouraged that country's leadership to stand fast against "US hegemony." In Vienna, he turned his back on the European Union-Latin America summit to attend an alternative summit, where he was celebrated as the global left's great new hope. During a visit to London, he insulted British Prime Minister Tony Blair by calling him "Bush's poodle." Meanwhile, he praises Fidel Castro as a "bastion of justice" and proclaims that Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia will form an "Axis of Good." In mid-June, Chávez announced an upcoming trip to a series of countries, with each station along the way representing a slap in the face for the White House. The planned trip is to take him to Russia, China, North Korea, Syria and Iran -- for arms purchases, to sell oil and to enter into "strategic partnerships."
The Venezuelan president has been especially eager to interfere in the politics of neighboring countries. With millions in campaign contributions, Chávez played a major role in bringing Evo Morales to power in Bolivia, where the new president promptly nationalized his country's natural gas industry. In Argentina, he bought up billions in government bonds, making the administration of President Nestor Kirchner bend to his will. He has tried to tempt Brazil and the rest of the continent with cheap natural gas, to be pumped through a fanciful pipeline that, though currently only in the planning stages, could traverse South America.
Venezuela's president also happens to be handing out charity in the slums of major US cities. During a cold snap around Christmas 2005, he offered heating oil from his own reserves at half price to the residents of low-income neighborhoods in Boston and New York, and he plans to do the same thing this coming winter. Santa Chávez.
An idol of the poverty-stricken masses
Who is this man who, as the idol of poverty-stricken masses has conquered the streets of South America, even pushing aside the respective legends of Castro and Ché Guevara? Is he a hopeless but likeable idealist, a modern-day Don Quixote, battling windmills while targeting the World Bank? Is he the last true socialist revolutionary, a Ché Guevara with oil -- or merely an egomaniacal populist with a taste for dictatorship? What makes this man, loved by some and hated by others, tick, this man who demonizes the Bush administration and behaves like a dervish, all the while dispatching his supertankers toward Texas and Florida and coolly collecting the profits?
It's a perfectly normal Sunday in Venezuela. And just as on every day of the Lord, 52 times a year, showtime in Venezuela starts at 11 a.m. That's when the entire nation gathers in front of television sets, in kitchens and living rooms all across Venezuela, to watch "Aló Presidente." It's "Sabado Gigante" meets Castro: Chávez on live TV, five, six and sometimes even seven hours long.
On the show, the president meets with the people, in an improvised studio or on a market square, in a major city or a rural village. He responds to comments from the crowd and answers the questions of citizens who call in to the show, delivering monologues in between. He explains the global situation, talks about his dreams and reports on sexual problems. Sometimes he even helps settle marriage disputes on camera. It's Chávez TV, often banal, occasionally funny, but always an impressive spectacle served up by a politician who loves to tell a good story and manages to achieve a direct, though occasionally confusing, bond with the people. It would be extremely difficult to imagine George W. Bush hosting the same type of program, or German President Horst Köhler, for that matter.
The small city of El Tigre is the setting for today's show. Chávez wears a red paratrooper's beret, a red shirt over a red T-shirt, faded jeans and a broad smile on his dark-skinned face, its features as sharply etched as if they had been cut with a machete. I'm not one of those foppish bureaucrats in air-conditioned offices, the outfit suggests, not one of those major landowners who think of nothing but themselves, their luxurious villas and fast Ferraris. What I am, the outfit seems to say, is one of you.
With the cameras rolling, Chávez strolls through one of the subsidized supermarkets known as mercal that sell basic foods, which the government has installed in slums and in the country's poorest districts. "Milk, flour, corn, everything dirt cheap," the president announces triumphantly, holding a package of coffee under the nose of today's guest of honor. "Look," he says, "a Venezuelan product; we've even printed the first paragraph of our constitution on the package." The guest, Daniel Ortega, drenched in sweat and looking a little confused, holds the coffee up to the camera. But Ortega puts on a good face for his host's odd little game. After all, it's been said, Chávez is funding his election campaign. The leftist former Nicaraguan president and head of that country's Sandinistas plans to make a comeback this November.
Chávez hurries on, through a barrage of kisses and a flurry of words. He embraces a university graduate from one of the slum-like barrios, a woman who owes her success to "his" government stipends, he says. He praises Jesus as a social revolutionary ("I feel closer to Christianity every day"), Lenin as a politician ("He set things straight"), Cervantes as a man of letters ("If the dogs are barking at us, then it is because we are galloping," he says, quoting the Spanish writer) and, finally, ends up with his favorite historical figure, Simón Bolívar, born in Caracas and "South America's liberator."
Just as Bolívar brought together a large part of the continent against its Spanish occupiers around 1820, Chávez wants to create the same kind of unity against what he calls "threatening new occupation forces from Washington." He has managed to have Venezuela change its official name to "República Bolivariana de Venezuela." But that isn't enough for Chávez, who wants to transform all of Latin America into an anti-American realm a la Bolívar.
His mood on this Sunday in El Tigre seems almost mild compared to a recent performance, when Chávez, practically spitting with rage, rebuked one of his ministers on live camera. But on this day in El Tigre, his tirades against inhuman capitalism and the American devil seem almost rote. By the fourth hour of the program, he has given himself over completely to his role as benefactor. Whenever he promises something to a caller, his audience applauds. "What? You don't have drinking water in your community? That's impossible. Well, we'll make sure that changes right away. Now listen up, Mr. Finance Minister ..." He comes across as a doer whose main purpose in life seems to be to spend money on his people.
By the time "Aló Presidente" ends, the viewers are at least as worn out as the star. Since the country's key opposition parties boycotted the last election, there is no longer a single member of parliament who isn't close to Chávez. The president knows that he can't expect any feedback from that quarter. Venezuela's leading newspapers, El Universal and El Nacional, continue to voice sharp criticism of the president, proof positive that the country is far from a Cuban-style dictatorship of opinion. But Chávez has little interest in these bastions of the upper class. His instrument of domination is television and it's through TV that he rules the country -- with his personality show, for one, and with a media law that prescribes "social responsibility" and can degenerate into censorship at any time.
The president has few advisors, but his wider circle includes three Germans, all strict leftists: Carolus Wimmer, the country's delegate to the Latin American parliament and a veteran of the political movement of 1968, Deputy Oil Minister Bernard Mommer and Heinz Dieterich, an anti-capitalist ideologue living in Mexico. Chávez's closer circle includes two personal friends, with whom he meets "unofficially" but often: his comrade-in-arms, Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto, and his close friend, psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos.
His enemies are men who are forming an anti-Chávez bloc for elections in December. Their defiant slogan reads: "This country only has a future with us." Anyone who wants to judge Hugo Chávez must get to know both sides.
A land of contrasts
Venezuela is many things. It's the country's vast, flat-as-a-pancake Llanos central plains, with its cattle ranches. It's the hot, humid tropical region along the Orinoco River, home to the spectacular Salto Ángel waterfall (the world's highest) and mangrove swamps filled with bubbling oil wells. It's Isla de Margarita, with its magnificent beaches and duty-free shopping, where the international jet set rubs shoulders with Venezuela's whisky-chugging elite (indeed, the place is so cosmopolitan that it is almost unrecognizable as part of Venezuelan territory -- so much so, in fact, that it is more aptly dubbed Chivas country than Chávez country). And it's Lake Maracaibo with its unwieldy drilling towers, darkening the horizon like a swarm of grasshoppers shoved into the ground.
But, most of all, Venezuela is greater Caracas, the capital, home to 6 million people -- close to a quarter of the country's population -- living in wretched huts clinging to hillsides, luxurious villas in the valley or high-rise forests in between. The city, with its eight-lane highways, drive-thru McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Starbucks Cafés bears a closer resemblance to Los Angeles than to Lima. And it's a city practically made for drivers, with almost no sidewalks and the world's cheapest fuel prices, with a liter of gasoline costing all of 80 Bolívaros (about four cents, or about 15¢ a gallon). Despite almost constant sunshine, hardly anyone drives a convertible and no one ever rolls down his window, not even in traffic jams. Caracas is considered the capital of violent crime, currently second only to Baghdad as the world's most dangerous city. It isn't rare for 40 to 50 murders to take place on a single weekend.
Most happen in the barrios of the poor, places where Caracas looks like an upended garbage can, where bloody acts of revenge and counter-revenge are committed in the narrow, dark and muddy streets of the city's slums. But the downtown area is also considered especially dangerous, along with its romantic historic square, named, seemingly like every major landmark in the country, after Simón Bolívar. When the grey shadows of dusk settle like a shroud over old walls in downtown Caracas, armed gangs take over the streets.
In front of the city hall on the main square, with its statue of a mounted Bolívar, old women sell pictures of the saints and portraits of Chávez. Sometimes they sell a combination of the two -- an image of the godlike president, surrounded by angels, distributing manna to the people -- St. Hugo of the Cooking Pots. From his office on the first floor of city hall, Mayor Juan Barreto, 47, has difficulty speaking over the din of traffic from outside. The secretary sitting next to his desk, who is as breathtakingly beautiful as any of Venezuela's numerous winners of the Miss World competition, seems at her wits' end. She manages the mayor's schedule, which is already hours behind. "As usual," she sighs.
Ressurecting a revolutionary past
Barreto walks into the room. A former novelist, he is a man of big ideas, not someone equipped to deal with the day-to-day problems of managing a city. He is, however, someone who can effortlessly quote some of the great philosophers -- Spinoza, Marcuse, Adorno. And what are his most recent political initiatives? The bearded mayor, charming in a teddy bear-like way, has just joined the president in putting together a CD for state guests, which will also be distributed free of charge in poor neighborhoods. The title is "Sonidas de Caracas," a collection of cheerful, frivolous and even a few sentimental songs, tunes that strengthen national unity. "Where there is egoism one needs solidarity," says the mayor, "that, at least, is what they say in the Frankfurt School."
Barreto, who is especially fond of discussing his friend Chávez, sends everyone out of the room who could possibly interrupt him during the next few hours. Everyone, that is, but a four-year-old girl, the secretary's daughter, who busies herself to turning the documents on his desk into paper airplanes. But she also focuses on his words as Barreto resurrects a revolutionary past.
He tells the story of the child of poor, mestizo village teachers, a boy who grew up in the sleepy village of Sabaneta in the Llanos, more than 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Caracas -- on a different planet altogether. He talks about Hugo the adolescent, who, as a nine-year-old, sold fruit from a cart in the village to help support his five siblings. And he talks about Hugo the ambitious student who saw only one opportunity to make it in a "white" society dominated by the descendants of colonialists: a career as a military officer.
Chávez loved the uniform and dreamed of a baseball career. But he also wasn't blind to the stark social contrasts in Venezuela. When the rightists, with the CIA's help, ousted the government of socialist President Salvador Allende in Santiago de Chile in 1973, Chávez began his political education, reading Marx and Lenin, and devouring every word Bolívar ever wrote. He quickly advanced through the military ranks, his primary career. But he also developed a second career when he formed an underground movement within the officers' corps.
In the late 1960s, Venezuela was still the world's biggest oil exporter and was one of the founding members of OPEC. President Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized the oil industry in 1976, and for a moment it looked as though the standard of living of all Venezuelans was about to improve drastically. But Pérez distributed the country's oil revenues to his favorites, allowing a small, arrogant and ignorant upper class to stuff their pockets with oil money. The rude awakening came in the mid-1980s, when the oil price plunged by two-thirds and Venezuela slid into state bankruptcy. The political parties were discredited and price hikes for basic food drove Venezuelans into the streets, where bloody battles threatened to tear the nation apart.
In 1992, Chávez and his comrades-in-arms attempted to overthrow the government. It was a botched rebellion, but its leader quickly turned defeat into personal triumph. Arrested by the authorities, Chávez, speaking before live cameras, assumed full responsibility for the incident and, in a dramatic gesture, called upon his fellow rebels to avoid further bloodshed. "We have failed, unfortunately," the telegenic man proclaimed. "Failed -- for today."
Chávez was given a prison sentence but was permitted to receive visitors while incarcerated. For parts of the army and, most of all, for the poor, he became a messianic beacon of hope. After his release in 1994, the revolutionary met Fidel Castro for the first time, seeking inspiration from the Cuban dictator. Though impressed by Castro's national health campaigns, he had no interest in merely imitating Havana's rigorous state socialism.
He left his return to politics up to the will of the people. In 1998, after winning more than 56 percent of votes in a free election, he moved into the Miraflores presidential palace, becoming the youngest president in the country's history. He created special powers for himself so that he could pursue his "social revolution," and he convinced the parliament to adopt a constitution favoring the president. In April 2002, he survived a coup attempt organized -- "probably with the help of the CIA," according to the US newsmagazine Newsweek -- by the upper class, fearing for their last remaining privileges. After only two days, Chávez, with the support of loyal soldiers, resumed office.
In August 2004, Chávez's future stood in the balance once again when he was forced to submit to a referendum after a strike crippled the country's oil industry. Chávez won the referendum with more than 59 percent of votes. The opposition claimed that there was election fraud, but observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, believed the election was valid. "My friend is and remains popular with the masses," says Mayor Barreto proudly. "That's because he pays attention to the concerns of the poorest."
$10 billion in social spending
"Misión Sucre" in a poor section of Caracas, one of hundreds of such government-run model facilities nationwide, is a collection of hastily built structures graced with gigantic wall murals of Chávez painted in the naïve style, portraits of slaves casting off their chains and "Venceremos" slogans.
Cuban doctors, brought here from the Caribbean island in exchange for cheap oil, attend to crying children in a small medical clinic. In a simple school building, adults write awkward-looking letters onto a blackboard. Those who participate in the literacy campaign receive coupons for the mercal. Female workers produce sandals in a small shoe factory, while others sew red T-shirts in a larger building.
Posters of Chávez are pasted onto some of the modern machines. "After all, he gave us the machines," says Amalia, a seamstress. "In the past, no one took people living in the poor areas seriously. Now we have Chávez. He comes from the bottom. He is living our dream." The factory, a cooperative, sells the T-shirts for $3 apiece to the oil company, whose executive level consists solely of Chávez supporters. The cooperative needn't worry about competition, even if its workmanship is substandard. Sales are guarantied, and the proceeds are distributed equally among the workers as their net earnings.
But this workers' paradise also has its shortcomings. Rosario complains that, once again, not much more than half the employees have showed up for work today. "I have to send offenders three written warnings before I can even cut their salaries," says Rosario, who was voted into her position as forewoman. And she can't even sanction seamstresses during their first year on the job. Rosario, clearly frustrated, wrote the following notice on the wall: "The company belongs to us. That means that whoever doesn't do his job is a user." But her words were ineffective. The only warning that works, she says, is one that comes from the Chávez political commissioner in the barrio. Those at the top don't want any trouble in their model business operation.
The president has pumped at least an estimated $10 billion into social programs in the last two years. How much of that money went up in smoke, and how much was wasted on unsuccessful programs? And some critics have asked whether the misiones, these slum-defying oases of a more just world, are anything more than shams in the Caribbean? That, at least, is what the opposition claims, calling Chávez's programs examples of naïve Robin Hood policy without any permanence. To make their case, they cite statistics showing that the gap between rich and poor remaining has stayed as wide as ever throughout Chávez's seven years in office. In their eyes, the president is more oily than anointed.
A patchy opposition
The majority of Chávez's opponents are wealthy business owners. They include a slippery neo-liberal named Julio Borges, 36, former politician, guerillero and publisher Teodoro Petkoff, 74, who is suddenly painting himself as the man of the center, and aging star attorney Enrique Tejera París, 85, who spends his days holding court in his opulent hacienda or his downtown office. It's a sorry assemblage on the whole, with its oldest member being its only significant intellectual force.
Tejera vehemently disputes that the president's social programs are the right approach. He is fluent in the language of the World Bank, despite the fact that Washington's neo-liberal concepts have failed in Latin America, making the poor even poorer. The standard of living in Venezuela, he says, can only be radically improved by strengthening private enterprise. While the economy grew by more than nine percent in the last year, Tejera adds, private investment has grown by all of three percent in the last four years. Chávez, he says, frightens away investors with his constant new regulations. "If the oil price drops by as a little as a quarter, he'll be finished quickly -- and the country will be ruined."
Tejera alleges that Chávez siphons off money from the state-owned oil company as he sees fit, he is creating a private army with his private militia and recently signed a ridiculous deal with the Russians for the purchase of combat helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. He does everything he can to stir up a fear of invasion, thereby gathering the people around him.
"Sometimes Chávez seems cunning to me," says Tejera, who can only expect to capture a few votes in presidential elections on December 3. "And sometimes I find him irrational, a dreamer. Indeed, the man probably belongs on a professional's couch."
Chavez and Bolívar
Doctor Edmundo Chirinos, 70, the psychiatrist and good friend of Hugo Chávez, has his office in one of Caracas's better neighborhoods. His waiting room is decorated with a poster of Sigmund Freud, a shiny golden globe and a fountain splashing in a peculiar artificial jungle. Two patients doze away in a drug-induced haze, while a third screams, with horrifying regularity: "Thank heaven, God be with us!"
The director of the Psicológica Clínica is an expensively dressed man. He gives the impression that every cell of his being is part of the upper class, but the posters on the wall in his office tell a different story, portraying him as an outsider and as the 1988 Communist Party candidate for president. "Hugo made it instead of me, but I helped him where I could," says Chirinos. "He earned it and our country is better off for it, despite one weakness or the other." Did he treat Chávez? "He was my patient and became my friend, and we still see each other almost every week." He cannot divulge any professional information, of course, says Chirinos, before promptly revealing the fact that the president and his first wife attempted to save their marriage in many sessions. Many tears were shed in this office, he says, but to no avail. And then the doctor goes on to deliver an especially detailed report on the special affinity Chávez feels for Bolívar.
Does Chávez really see himself as a reincarnation of the great liberator, who, disappointed by Latin America's people, turned into an autocrat in his final years? Is this relationship, this congeniality of spirit an obsession? After all, observers say that the president routinely has conversations with a bust of Bolívar.
"Obsession is a category from my professional world. I prefer not to use such terms," says the psychiatrist. "But Chávez identifies fully with Bolívar and his grandiose dreams. There isn't anything strategic or made-up about that. Even defeats such as in Peru -- where Chávez didn't support the victorious social democratic candidate, Alan García, but ultra-leftist Ollanta Humala -- are only temporary setbacks for him."
And what about his role as a symbol of the left and an opponent of globalization, as a new Ché? "Chávez enjoys this role and he has sorted things out for himself -- like every important statesman in world history. This is evident in his amazing energy, which enables him to work for nights on end. He is a man with a mission, and he would certainly be prepared to die as a martyr if it came to that."
To demonstrate the parallels to Simón Bolívar, the psychiatrist cites the work of a colleague who has collected everything that's been written about the character of the country's national hero. He reads aloud: "Honest, a gifted communicator, unreceptive to corruption. Someone who preferred to pursue difficult dreams than to deal with the hard realities of life -- this also applies to Hugo."
The psychological profile of Bolívar continues. "Confident of his power to the point of being manipulative, sometimes unforgiving, excessively self-focused. I also see parallels there." The psychiatrist finally sums up his thoughts on the matter: "I see two men who refuse to be deterred." But Chávez, he adds, has a far more pronounced, leftist political concept, which has developed into an independent system of government. "What should I call it...?" Chirinos searches for the right expression.
Chirinos isn't sure whether he likes the expression. But he does offer a professional caveat. "The term narcissism describes an illness -- and Hugo Chávez is certainly not ill, in the clinical sense."
There is a soft rustling noise coming from a small waterfall in the psychiatrist's treatment room. Soft music -- Frank Sinatra's "My Way" -- comes from hidden loudspeakers. Everything seems geared toward keeping things calm.
Chirinos says his goodbyes. "I've spent a long time thinking about which current politician Hugo Chávez could possibly resemble. This sense of mission, this certainty dispelling all contradictions, this Biblical language with its division into God and Satan, absolute good and endless evil. I can only think of one man: George W. Bush."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan