Saturday, February 28, 2009

Schadenfreude

Tom Kando

Schadenfreude: German. Pronounced 'shahd'nfroyduh'. Meaning: "Pleasure derived from the Misfortune of others." Tendency of many people on both sides of the Atlantic.Europeans love to exaggerate America's troubles, and vice-versa: I get e-mails from European friends and relatives constantly asking me how I manage to survive, while my country is falling apart. They write things like, "We hear about California. Boy, you are in real trouble over there! Your budget deficit, your drought, your earthquakes! How can you stand it there?"

When the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, some Europeans called me up to make sure I was okay - in Sacramento, 700 kilometers away!

Yesterday, the NRC Handelsblad, one of Holland's premier newspapers, published an article predicting that Obama's policies would probably fail, saying that the US is on the verge of total collapse.

The Europeans most eager to see America fail tend to be on the Left. So that's one side of the story.

Here in the US, we do the same thing in reverse: Last week, Time Magazine wrote that California's economy was so bad that it was beginning to resemble France (Oh my, not that! I thought, guffawing)

Two years ago, Pepperdine University held a conference on "The Collapse of Europe." Professors presented papers predicting Europe's imminent demise. For one thing, the Continent's population was declining, necessitating mass immigration from Muslim countries. This was bound to transform Europe into a Muslim theocracy.

For many years, a popular term in some circles in America has been "Eurosclerosis." This refers to the belief that Europe is over-taxed and under-productive, and thus will soon be very poor.

A few years ago, Rush Limbaugh said that most lower-class Americans are far more affluent than most upper-class Europeans.

The Americans most eager to see Europe fail are on the Right.

What both anti-American Europeans and anti-European Americans have in common, is a total disregard for facts, and a refusal to check out reality by traveling across the Atlantic. You see, they are both already convinced that they know the truth about how bad the other side is, and they adamantly refuse to have this certitude shaken by paying a visit to the other. Some of my American conservative friends tell me, "I know how wretched life is in Europe, I was there in 1950." And my European friends tell me "I know how terrible things are in America, I watch 'desperate housewives' on TV."

I must confess, sometimes I'll give a tit for a tat: When my Dutch friends asked me how I managed to survive the Northridge earthquake some years ago, I retorted, "How did you manage to survive the Bosnian war?"

Anyway, I find this funny, and I hope you do too. It's not a tragedy. The bright side is this: the reality is that both Americans and Europeans are doing a hell of a lot better than they think of each other.
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Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Nanny Is Watching You

by Juliette Kando

Now that I no longer live in England, the changes that are taking place there are much more noticeable during my infrequent visits.

In England people are being made to feel completely paranoid by scare mongering tactics all in the name of “security”. We are told it is for our own safety, all because of the threat of terrorism of course, just like the non-existent secret weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, remember?
Here are a few examples: At Gatwick Airport, every time I get to the end of a stretch of rolling sidewalk of a bleeper goes off loudly followed by a female robot voice: “You are now reaching the end of the rolling sidewalk, mind your step!” as if I was a toddler in the playground. Am I blind? No, I am not blind, only tired from a very uncomfortable flight.

On the train to London I try to relax and close my eyes for a moment. But between every station a loudspeaker bellows: “This train is terminating at (pause) London Victoria.” The misuse of the word terminating in this context has annoyed me for years. British Rail introduced it and now all the privatised train companies have followed suit. The train is not terminating, the journey is terminating. If the train was to terminate it would have to crash or explode or something. The journey comes to an end, the train hopefully not. The British people have a terribly unfair advantage in the world: Whatever they say has an air of validity, whether it’s total poppycock or not: it’s the British accent you see.

At this point, trying to relax during a stressful journey, I merely get annoyed by the fact that Big Nanny does not need to tell me where the train is going, hopefully not terminating, because I bought a ticket, remember? I bought a ticket to a particular destination on a particular train. Duh!

Five minutes later again I jump out of my slumber: “Please do not keep luggage unattended at any time or it will be removed and may be destroyed!” And every time the train stops at a station: “Mind the gap!” I get a distinct feeling that such unnecessary messages thrown at me every few minutes are trying to make me feel blind, uncoordinated and stupid.

Later, when I have fought my way through the crowds at Victoria Station I get on the 52 bus to Kendal Rise (to my son’s family). On the bus in front of me a large flat screen scrolls a message: “Be vigilant. If you see anything suspicious, report immediately to staff or police. Trust your senses.” Does that mean if you don’t like the look of someone you’re supposed to report him or her? This message makes me feel scared like I imagine people must have felt in Stalin’s Russia.

The next morning, in front of Sainsbury’s supermarket in Golders Green, a huge rolling poster issued by the local Council orders me to: “Make a shopping list. Only buy what you need. 60% of all waste is food.” That is a valid message but do we need to be told such things by people we elected to run certain vital services - brainwashing not among them? Who do they take me for? A food waster? These are the very same administrations that support and encourage the expansion of stations and airports into commercial malls (the greatest food wasters) completely overlooking the desperate need for improved travel conditions for the client, the traveller.

A few days later, my flight from Amsterdam to London is delayed. This delay threatens to cause me to miss my connecting flight back to Malaga (home sweet home). Hence I ask the flight attendants if I can sit in the front row, ready to run like hell to a different terminal (This airline doesn’t assign seats).

Luckily I am already in possession of a boarding pass. “That’s all right, Madam, of course you may sit in the front row. Of course you’ll catch your flight, there is plenty of time,” they smile reassuringly. Flight attendants are trained to be very polite and friendly and to switch on a smile for no reason whatsoever whenever they speak to you.

I discovered later that we landed three minutes after the gates had closed for the next flight. Had I been told this, it would have saved me the 3 kilometres dash like an escaped lunatic through stuffy corridors. Puffed out, I push my way through yet another security queue explaining I’m trying to catch a flight but after some computer searching the guard tells me I missed it and points me to the EasyJet desk. I am now suffering from the common preliminary stress factors of air travel: noise pollution, lack of air and ITCD syndrome (Inner Time Clock Disruption). No, not jet lag, this is different and happens also on shorter flights. ITCD is tempo failure, no flow of time. One minute you have to rush beyond your limits, the next wait for hours.

Even though the delay is the airline’s fault I have to pay extra for changing the last flight home. In Europe, where the distances between countries are much shorter than in the US, you have to be at the airport two hours before departure, even if your flight only lasts, say one hour. Now I get so angry I belt out: “I’ll never fly EasyJet again and I will tell all my friends to do likewise!” Upon which the girl at the desk smiles: “That’s fine Madam, you don’t have to fly EasyJet.”

Come to think of it, I am considering boycotting flying altogether, whenever possible. I’ll take the train next time. Or hitch a ride, even better. Or a donkey?
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Ugly American?

Tom Kando
At the risk of agitating some people, I am going to wave the flag a bit today. I have long been bothered by anti-Americanism, which I consider a variant of racism.

I remember reading the best-selling book The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in the late 50s. I know how the French and many other Europeans continue to dislike Americans a great deal. I also know how many guilt-ridden Americans also dislike their own country.Whenever I call someone on this, they reply, “Well, it’s not the American people I dislike, it’s just their politicians (e.g Bush). And as far as anti-American Americans go, their position seems to be: “Well, I am a good American, and so are most of my friends, but it’s those other people (E.g those racist rednecks in Iowa) who are bad Americans, and most Americans are that way (forgetting, by the way, that it was Iowa which gave us President Obama).

I can prove to you that it is the American people whom anti-Americans dislike, not just their politicians, no matter their protestations: Why else would they continue to rant about how obnoxious American tourists are?

In fact, a recent survey showed that the worst behaved tourists are the French, followed by assorted other Europeans and Asians. Americans came in the middle of the pack - neither the best nor the worst.

And then, how about the question: How do different countries treat visitors to THEIR shores? I’d say that there are fewer people in the world who are friendlier and more hospitable than Americans. This has been my experience, and it is, reluctantly, confirmed by some European friends who visited me recently. Americans may be fat, sometimes badly dressed, but they sure are friendly. That’s the consensus.

Is it nonsense to generalize about an entire country? It is politically incorrect, nowadays. To every generalization there are many exceptions. But, as anthropologists understood long ago, the study of culture and personality is a legitimate area of inquiry.

There is something which Europeans and other people around the world do not realize: Everything you say about Americans is true, because America is the most diverse country in the world:

Are Americans “conservative and pro-Christian?” Yes. A few million are. But then, we have atheist crusaders suing people left and right.

Are Americans “sexist?” Some are. But there are no more radical feminists anywhere than in the US, and American women are still more liberated than any others. Women got to vote in America half a century before they did in France.

Are Americans “fat?” Yes. I admit that we do hold the record here. However, we also have, unfortunately, the cult of thin-ness, with more anorexic teenagers and models than anyone else.

Are Americans “unhealthy?” Yes and no - our life expectancy is lower than in several Western European countries, but it is higher than in much of Eastern and Southern Europe. We still win the most Olympic medals of any country, so we must be doing something right...

Are Americans “homophobic?” Some are, but there is more gay power in San Francisco and some other areas than anywhere else.

Are Americans “racist?” Some are. But we have the first black president of a major Western nation.

Is “American food bad?” Well, we gave the world McDonald's. But we have more ethnic restaurants than any other country, we have farmers’ markets, we have entire colonies of vegetarians, vegans and assorted other non-traditional diets. The health-food movement started in America .

Is American “(popular) culture bad?” Some of it is. But where does Jazz come from? (Just for starters, and don’t tell me that blacks are not “real” Americans. Don’t even go there!)

So remember, whatever you say about America, it is both true and false. What we have here is called DIVERSITY. For example in California, where I live, I am a minority: European-Americans only make up 46% of the population.
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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Trying To Follow The Unwritten Rules

Article first published as Following Unwritten Rules on Technorati.

by Madeleine Kando

I came to America in my early twenties, not knowing what to do with my life and yearning for adventure. I didn't know much about this country. All I knew was that it was a lot bigger than Holland, my home country.

My biggest challenge in trying to adapt to living here was to figure out the 'unwritten rules' of American society.It started when I went for my first interview for a job as a secretary. As I was waiting for my interviewer, I heard someone call out: 'Madeleine?' and I thought to myself 'Hey, that's funny, somebody here is also called Madeleine.' But then I realized that they were calling ME! Imagine being called by your first name by a total stranger! I was shocked to my core. In Holland, being called by your first name by someone you don't know is a sign of total disrespect. I was very insulted and almost walked out of the office.

Now that I am a veteran immigrant I have grown to like this custom. I like it because it reflects one of the most basic American values - that of equality. In America, titles, such as "sir" and "madam" are seldom used in business or elsewhere. People in authority, managers, directors, even presidents are addressed by their first name. So why not a lowly interviewee?
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Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Geert Wilders Saga Continues

Tom Kando

On February 12, the British government denied Geert Wilders entry into Britain. Wilders is the Dutch parliamentarian who is being criminally prosecuted in Amsterdam because he made and propagated an anti-Koran film which depicts acts of violence by Muslims and because he compared the Koran with Mein Kampf. The British authorities said that “people who carry extremist, hate and violent messages are not welcome in our community.” It should be noted that Wilders was not running from Dutch law. He had been invited by some members of the British Parliament to present his views.Pat Condell is a brilliant British on-line satirist who has commented on the Wilders case in the past. Check him out by clicking on Pat Condell's
In his comments, Condell really lets the Dutch have it. But now, it seems that the British authorities have joined the Dutch in their idiocy and cowardice.

As to where I stand, let me make the following points:

1) The Dutch authorities - and now the Brits - are very wrong. I wont re-iterate the reasons why. Pat Condell discusses them far more eloquently than I ever could.

2) Let’s be emphatically clear that the issue has nothing to do with Arabs (or with Iranians, Pakistanis, Indonesians and all the other people whose majority religion is Islam).

3) The problem lies with fundamentalist religion and religious intolerance, including radical Islam.

4) Condell and others may be fervent atheists. I am not. I am indifferent to religion. I am not as animated against religion as Condell and others. In fact, I am against the harassment of religious people. I find it lame when Macy’s forbids its employees to wish people “Merry Christmas,” when municipalities forbid crèches in public areas, when there is a crusade to delete “In God we Trust” from our money, etc.

I find militant atheism and mandated atheism (as in the former USSR) a mirror image of theocracy. Soulless, scientific materialism doesn’t have all the answers, either. After all, the crisis of modernity is upon us, right now, isn’t it?

Let’s not toss out the spiritual and the transcendental altogether. The question should not be: Religion, yes or no? But: What sort of spirituality? We have much to learn from Buddhism, Zen and other Eastern traditions.

5) But this huge topic is not what today’s post is about. Today, I just want to stress the evils of religious bigotry. Today, militant Islam is the prime example of this, and yet the European authorities are punishing Geert Wilders, who is no more than the messenger.

6) Religious bigotry is evil wherever it occurs, and it also occurs in Christian countries. But currently, US fundamentalists do not stone women to death because they had a cup of tea with a man they are not married to. They do not send 16-year old suicide bombers (often girls, lately) to kill innocent men, women and babies. They only vote to ban such things as homosexual marriage. That’s a bit of a difference.

7) The media have told us about Sharia law, the Madrassas, and the Mullahs. I don’t know with how much negative bias these terms are used in the West. Perhaps some of the religious schooling undergone by young Muslims is okay. But there is no doubt that some of this “religion-based” education inspires the atrocities and the mayhem, including anti-Western terrorism, and that it fuels enormous hatred of Western culture. The greatest obscenity is that the “religious leaders” are often old men, while those they send to blow themselves up are often children. But I suppose that’s always been the way of war - old men sending children to die.

8) So now Geert Wilders becomes a cause célèbre, due to the stupidity and cowardice of (some) Europeans.
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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Population Density: An Ecological Interpretation of Politics

by Tom Kando

The central political variable - Left vs. Right - is about how much or how little “Socialism” is desirable: The Right wants little of it, the Left wants a lot. By Socialism, I mean: (1) Giving priority to collective well-being over individual freedom. (2) Empowering - who else? - the government to achieve this.
By this definition, America has been a right-wing country, whereas Europe has been more on the Left.Why has America been on the Right?

Here is an hypothesis: Because it could. And why could it? Because it was huge, spacious, with lots of resources, and a low population density. Even today, with its 310 million people, America’s population density is still only 80 per square mile. Compare this with Germany (603), the United Kingdom (640) and the Netherlands (1230), or even the entire European Community (310).

My hypothesis is common-sensical: As people get more and more crowded, they have to learn to cooperate more. And Cooperation = Socialism.

Here in America, we could afford to have the Wild West. Everybody trying to strike it rich on his own. Europe was different.

So if I am right, then as America becomes more crowded, we can expect more Socialism, just as in Europe. The government will regulate more and re-distribute more. Less freedom for the Bernie Madoffs of this world to swindle people out of $50 billion. Less freedom for other things too, I suppose.

But do the facts fit my hypothesis, which postulates a correlation between population density and socialism?Some countries fit: For example Brazil has only 57 people per square mile, and the country is a chaotic free for all. Somalia has even fewer people - 33 per square mile, and it’s practically ungovernable. There are many other good examples.

But then, what about Russia? One of the most sparsely populated countries in the world - 20 people per square mile, Yet, they had Socialism with a vengeance (it was called Communism). Of course, post-communist Russia was a different story, it became as lawless as the Wild West ever was. And what about Canada? Even fewer people (8 per square mile), and yet more “socialistic” than the US. Same with Australia, with only 7 people per square mile, yet more left-leaning than America...

So I’ll conclude as a true sociologist: This theory needs further research. (And please, send the research grant $$$$ to my home address).
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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Leaving Is a Little Bit Like Dying

by Madeleine Kando

Some people like the excitement of traveling, while others find it anxiety provoking. I react with a mixture of both, but as soon as I start packing, my bohemian ancestry takes over: excitement wins over anxiety.

This is odd, considering that I have recurrent dreams of getting lost in a foreign city, with the realization that I have no money, no passport and no place to stay. Above all I don’t know anyone. I wake up in a sweat and thank whoever is up there that it was just a dream.But either way the problem of what to pack is a universal dilemma. After all, whether we like it or not, as travelers we have to accept the reality that a suitcase has a finite amount of room. And that in itself makes packing a very zen experience. It forces you to focus on the essentials.

’Partir c’est mourir un peu’ say the French (leaving is a little bit like dying) and packing is a little like preparing to die: you have to decide what is essential to bring with you and what is not.

Most people hate to part with their possessions, and having to decide which little pieces of your life you are going to take with you is a very difficult process.

Standing in front of my empty suitcase, I am ready to start the painful selection processs. I open a drawer where I keep my socks, but I find myself unable to select which ones to bring until the whole drawer has been purged and everything is neatly paired and rolled into tidy little sock-balls.
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