Culture

A Grim Start

Well, here we are in 2017, and a new era of hope and peace and love and…

What’s that?

The cycle of hatred that crescendo in 2016 continues to careen onward, claiming new victims in ghastly ways?

Yes, scratch that opening line.

We are not even a week into the new year, and we have a fresh horrific example of humankind’s malevolence, courtesy of Chicago.

That’s where some Trump-hating teenagers assaulted a man, live on Facebook, while yelling slurs about white people.

I’m not going to show the video because, frankly, there’s too much violence porn out there already.

But I will point out that conservatives have responded with a certain sort of glee, thrilled to finally have some evidence that ethnic minorities are beating up on white people. And liberals have responded with outrage tinged with defensiveness.

I’m not going to get into all that, primarily because it should be perfectly clear that everyone — regardless of political affiliation or ethnicity — is repulsed by these acts. So there is no need to state the obvious about how grotesque these morons are. It’s like denouncing the Ebola virus.

Instead, I just want to point out that hatred feeds upon itself, and it is a base universality of human nature that many people will use the fact that they are being oppressed as perverse justification for their sick abuse of others.

It is Orwell’s vision of the future: Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Happy New Year…


No Need for a Retrospective

Look, no one disputes that 2016 was an abysmal, horrific monstrosity of a year. It was the hottest year on record, we elected a sociopathic narcissist to the White House, and 1,893 of our favorite celebrities died. That’s bad.

But perhaps 2017 will be better.

Ha-ha, we’re just kidding. Because as everyone knows, the first year of the Trump presidency means, at best, pain and agony. At worst, it foretells the end of all civilization, and we will not debate whether 2018 will be any better, because none of us will exist, and all of America will look like this:

Still, let’s gather together to kick 2016 to the curb. I wish I could say that my hopes are high for 2017, but I would have to be on heavy narcotics to issue such an absurd declaration.

All I can say is thanks for reading, keep fighting the good fight, and see you next year.


Doomed, Doomed, Doomed

So I was listening to a podcast on nihilism (no, it cannot get any geekier and more depressing, at least not simultaneously).

In any case, a number of scholars talked about the history of pessimism and the belief that life is meaningless and Nietzsche’s horse and all that fun stuff. The scholars agreed that periods of nihilism are cyclical, just like all components of history, and that the doom and gloom that pervade our culture is not unusual… however…

A few of them believed that our era is subtly different — a bit more intense than your typical Armageddon of the past. This is because our society’s constant barrage of horrific news, and the proliferation of social media, have combined to create a hyper-awareness of just how shitty the entire planet is and the knowledge of every little thing that is going wrong anywhere at any time.

The experts are correct. Fifty years ago, you might have felt despair over the Vietnam War, but there wasn’t a constant stream of Facebook videos explaining just how hopeless it was, and maybe you still had faith that things were ok in Paris or Helsinki or Rio de Janiero or wherever. Today, we hear constantly that everyplace is fucked up, and you’re a bad person if you ignore it.

Isis wants to chop off all our heads, and undocumented immigrants are raping at will, and gay men are stalking kids in bathrooms — hey, irrational fear multiples and feeds upon itself.

However, I think there is even more to it.

You might expect me to mention that the recent election of the worst-qualified president in history, who is also an egotistical sociopathic, might have increased the perception that the end is nigh, or at least nigh-er. You would be correct.

However, there is yet more to it than that.

You see, a hundred years ago, you may have been overwhelmed at the carnage of World War I, but you didn’t seriously think all of civilization would be destroyed.

And then the nuclear era changed all that, and you had to accept that everyone and everything could go up in flames one day just because the Russians got all pushy. But even then, total annihilation required action (i.e., the launching of thermonuclear warheads). Therefore, as long as everybody kept his cool, it was going to be fine.

Well, we have now morphed into a new era — a period of intense, unique nihilism — where all the old fears about the end of the world persist. However, now it is inaction — in the form of denying climate change — that is dooming us.

In other words, for the first time in our history, we actually have to work to prevent our extinction. In the past, we just had to keep our collective heads down and avoid doing anything too spectacularly stupid. But now, we have to come up with answers.

And it is this knowledge — that we have to fight for our survival — that has caused so many people to embrace nihilism. If we can’t even keep our leaders from tweeting idiotic, made-up bullshit about climate change, what hope does the Earth have?

 

Of course, we Latinos are especially prone to Catholic fatalism, which has the whiplash effect of making us weirdly optimistic about the future. But that is a whole other story.

In any case, all this is rather bleak, so I’m going to end this article with an uplifting story.

Recently, a “Christian computer programmer” (emphasis on the “Christian”) crunched the biblical numbers and come to the conclusion that the apocalypse will occur on New Year’s Eve.

 

So humanity will be wiped out, and none of us will live to see 2017.

You may ask, “What’s so cheery about that?”

Well, duh, it means that Trump will never be inaugurated.

Happy days are here again.

 


Snowflakes

For the moment, let’s avoid dwelling on all the hate crimes that have erupted across the nation since our small-fingered president-elect nabbed his 270th electoral vote.

But let’s just acknowledge that there have been a lot of racist attacks, many of which have been spectacular in their brutality and lunacy.

However, as horrific as these public displays of xenophobia are, I’m more interested in our reaction to these fascistic assaults.

You see, many people are writing off those losers painting swastikas or some thug grabbing a woman’s hijab as stray nutjobs, a tiny percentage of freaks that’s inevitable in a nation of 300 million people. Yes, it stretches the boundaries of plausibility to say the surge in hatred has absolutely nothing to do with Trump, but let’s go with that scenario for now.

What is far more problematic, far more onerous, is the response of social conservatives whenever an ethnic minority has the chutzpah to point out such acts of bigotry.

We get that laziest of insults, which is that we are pampered snowflakes.

snowflakes

The message is that shit happens and we need to toughen up and we have to stop whining and so on and so on.

Of course, the real reason for this dismissal is that acknowledging racism is psychologically distressing for many people — particularly white conservatives who really want to sidestep the obvious truth that a significant chunk of their peers are bigots, and in some cases, actual damn Nazis.

So snapping that a liberal is just a snowflake is a way to jettison the discomfort. It denies that the problem is widespread or even that odious. It says that, basically, it’s just a few jerks, so get over your hypersensitive self.

One recent example of the snowflake phenomena caught my eye. Perhaps you heard about the school in Michigan where white students formed a human wall to block minority students from getting to their destinations. A 12-year-old Latina “was stopped from going to her locker by a group of boys who told her to go back to her country and that they were going to ‘make America great again.’”

I read a few accounts of the story, and (against my better judgment) many reader comments. It was easy to spot the opinion pattern that “boys were just being boys” and outraged adults were simply a bunch of —you guessed it — snowflakes.

But I’m just wondering, at what point did a 12-year-old facing a gauntlet of racists become so much political correctness? When did we collectively decide to dismiss these incidents and treat them as a normal part of growing up? When did we latch onto the term “snowflake” as mindless shorthand and mocking derision?

To be honest, right now in America, the only snowflakes I see are middle-aged guys who are pissed off that life didn’t work out perfectly for them. I see horribly insecure men lashing out at children who are having threats literally shouted into their faces. I see hypocritical conservatives who most likely have never endured a moment of mob hatred, never been the object of abuse, who now sit smugly back and tell kids that they’re just being wimps.

This is beyond blaming the victim. It is even beyond simple prejudice and petty hatred.

It is a sociopathic disdain for humanity.

I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings. I guess you’ll just have to fucking get over it.

 


Gemütlichkeit

Don’t tell me about Oktoberfest.

I’ll tell you about Oktoberfest.

You see, I’m from Wisconsin (specifically, Milwaukee, as I’ve written about). And because I hail from a city that is synonymous with beer and a state that is awash in Germanic culture… well, let’s just say that I’ve partaken a few times in the festivities.

Hint: When you’re drinking from the glass boot with your friends, avoid gulping the heel. It just bubbles up in your face.

beer-boot-funny-square

 

Of course, the tradition of Oktoberfest has spread across America.

Hey, just yesterday, I saw a dozen people dressed in lederhosen, sprinting down the street outside my apartment, in some kind of bizarre footrace for beer. And I live in Los Angeles, far better known for its Latino, Asian, and Armenian influences than its German ones.

In any case, Oktoberfest has become Americanized, just like — yes, it’s true — Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos.

The difference is that there is no movement to sever Oktoberfest from its Germanic roots. And nobody views Oktoberfest as an affront to American values, or complains that everything was fine until those damn Bavarians showed up.

You get the picture.

For some mystical reason, it is fine — even glorious — to celebrate Oktoberfest or St. Patrick’s Day. And there will be no political backlash.

Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos, however, are likely to get at least a few people all huffy.

When we acknowledge Germanic and Irish culture, no one claims that doing so “divides us” or undermines the quest for a colorblind society (whatever that means) or somehow cheapens the label of “American” because we’ve put “German” or “Irish” in front of it.

This is not the case with any holiday that has committed the grievous sin of having a Spanish name.

Well, I’m sure it’s simply an unfortunate coincidence.

So let’s all just relax and have a beer.

 


2+2= KKK

As a writer, I am supposed to despise math.

Look at it, looking all smug with its cosines and discontinuous divisors and irrational numerators.

It’s just so absolutely certain about the world. I must hate it.

math2f

But I don’t. Although I’ve always been drawn to words, I’ve never been intimidated by numbers. I did pretty well in math in school, although I never went past pre-calculus.

So I’ve never understood people who freak out about math, or panic at the mere sight of an equation. This fear, I believe, turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and soon people are insisting that they can’t do basic addition and throwing up their hands at polling data or stiffing the waiter because they don’t dare try to figure out the tip.

But maybe these mathphobes are on to something. Because to my great disappointment, it turns out that math is a big old bigot.

Yes, a recent book argues that “math is essentially being used for evil,” in that “algorithms and big data are targeting the poor, reinforcing racism and amplifying inequality.”

Now, inflammatory (and completely misleading) claims about math being “racist” aside, the point is clear. Numbers are only as good as the humans who input them. As such, “any algorithm can — and often does — simply reproduce the biases inherent in its creator, in the data it’s using, or in society at large.”

For example, “nearly half of U.S. employers ask potential hires for their credit report, equating a good credit score with responsibility or trustworthiness.” This is despite the fact that the reliability of these reports “has remained in doubt for more than a quarter century.”

But because of our faith in data — or our fear of numbers — we continue to think an equation is “superior to human judgment — never questioning the assumptions that get baked in.”

This is a flawed assumption, and it not only helps reinforce inequality, it taps directly into that most vile of human drives: racial prejudice.

It turns out that numbers are not as culturally neutral and objective as we would like. Again, this is not because the numeral “3” somehow dislikes Latinos or the figure “864” really hates blacks. It is because “while algorithms might work with data alone, it’s always human beings that decide what factors they weigh.”

So what can be done about this issue? To begin with, simple acknowledgement is necessary, combined with the awareness that one can prove just about anything with the right set of figures.

And then we can get the world’s mathematicians to work on creating a formula that will rid the world of bigotry. That will be one truly great equation, and it will, of course, most likely equal 42.


What Will You Do When the Gentrifiers Come for You?

OK, I have to admit I was thrilled when our landlord informed us that he was selling our building. This was a guy who would tell us how much he appreciated us as tenants and then — mere days or even hours later — threaten to evict us over some imaginary breach of our lease or Seinfeldian personal slight. Basically, he was nuts, and over the years, we grew to hate dealing with him.

However, my relief over being rid of the bipolar landlord was short-lived.

You see, I live in Los Angeles, which is very tenant-friendly. For example, rent control exists, and owners can’t just boot people out if they feel like it.

However, there are ways to send renters packing — even those who pay their rent on time and are model tenants.

One way is to buy a building and then move an immediate family member in. Now, this isn’t some vile loophole. It makes sense that if you buy a building, you or your kid can live in it.

But legal and ethical isn’t always the same thing, as you may have heard.

In our case, the new owners took possession of our building and promptly deflected any questions about their intentions — good or otherwise.

We were concerned about this for a very real reason. Our neighborhood, as I’ve written, has morphed from skuzzy to somewhat nice to flat-out hipster, all in a brief blink of time. We moved in seven years ago, when the area was still affordable, and young guys in Civil War-era beards weren’t clamoring for more coffee bars.

hhipsterbeards

 

I still love living here, and the rapid gentrification hasn’t been so egregious that the neighborhood has lost all its character.

Of course, old-timers might disagree with me. For example, our neighbors have been here for 15 years. And as a lesbian couple, they were at ground zero in prodding the area from seedy enclave to happenin’ LA hotspot.

Yes, let’s just get this out of the way. There is never a better development for a downtrodden neighborhood than the news that gay couples are moving in.

Our friends are a big reason why this neighborhood is so popular. They worked to turn this area into a beautiful urban garden.

And the new owners have responded by kicking them out.

Our landlords have announced that their daughter, in her twenties, will be moving into our friends’ apartment.

It’s hard to view this development as anything less than the following scenario:

Spoiled Millennial: Daddy, I want to live in that neighborhood that was divvy, but now it’s all hip and trendy.
Rich Daddy: You’re in luck, sugar plum. I just expanded my vast real estate empire by buying a building there.
Spoiled Millennial: So I can have my own place, rent-free?
Rich Daddy: Of course. All we have to do is kick out the couple who has lived there for 15 years and helped make the place great in the first place. Consider them gone.
Spoiled Millennial: Goody goody. Thanks, Daddy.

Is that a bit much? No, it’s not. Because regardless of how the actual conversation went down and the tone of voice used and the amount of angst that occurred, the result is the same.

The rich kid wanted our friends’ place, and she got it. And our friends are packing up.

I’ve written before about gentrification, and how it tends to hit black and Latino neighborhoods harder. Indeed, there is a large Hispanic population in our neighborhood, but it has been dropping steadily for a few years now.

In our case, some very rich white people have decided that our area is now desirable, and they will ultimately take whatever they want.

Damn, maybe we were better off with the crazy landlord.

 

 


Look Back in Horror

I am the child of an immigrant. My mom is from El Salvador, so I grew up with the tastes and influences of a typical American teenager, all mixed with a strong awareness of Latino culture and history. I’m pretty grateful for the combo.

You know who else is the child of an immigrant? Omar Mateen, the psychopath who murdered 49 people in Orlando a few nights ago.

orlando-shooting-0612-large-169

Mateen and I clearly had different interpretations of the dichotomies that come with being members of the first generation to be born in America. For example, I blended a love of hamburgers with an appreciation for pupusas, and I gave the music of my mother’s homeland a fair listen before popping in a Soundgarden album. It was a bit of a mezcla.

But Omar Mateen wasn’t interested in mixing cultures. He found it easier to just embrace the problems, prejudices, and anger of his parents’ country. Mateen latched onto his father’s homophobia and the religious mania that is widespread in his family’s homeland. And in so doing, he set out to be more culturally authentic than his parents ever were.

This is not an issue of assimilation or integration, as so many people believe it to be. No, it is more of a cultural mindset.

It is a mindset that provokes young men, born and raised in America, to adopt the radical politics of their parents’ homelands. It is a mindset of fear and fury.

The massacre in Orlando — and the fact that so many of the victims were Latino — got me thinking about how this cultural perception forms one of the many roots of bigotry and violence.

Let’s ask, why are there no Latino terrorists, going on shooting sprees or strapping on bombs to avenge the pain and misery that the United States government has inflicted upon El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and other Latin American countries?

Indeed, there is ample reason for Hispanics to be more than a little pissed about our treatment and standing in the United States.

And yet, survey after survey shows that Latinos are more optimistic about the future and more positive about life in general than just about any other American demographic. We are pretty much the last people to use the injustices of the past to justify abhorrent behavior.

One reason for this is so obvious that it borders on the simplistic. But here it is: Latinos tend to look forward.

We pack up and move to new countries in search of better lives. We assume our kids will do better than us. We have faith that circumstances will improve.

And this forward-thinking mindset, this cultural tendency to dismiss the woes of the past, helps us to maintain optimism in the face of economic and political tribulations. It helps us to set aside our pain and disappointment, rather than hoist them upon our backs for all to see.

In contrast, angry and hate-filled people tend to look backward, toward some vague past, and then they threaten to make America, you know, “great again.”

And other people, like Omar Mateen, not only look backward — they glare at it with a white-hot obsession and rage. They believe that their culture’s best days are long behind them, that the present holds nothing more than humiliation and despair, and that someone — maybe American society or gays or left-handed dentists or whoever — is to blame.

Omar Mateen, in addition to being a pathetic and homicidal loser, was an unimaginative, scared person who had no faith in the future. And someone taught him that mindset, inculcating him with the belief that it was reality.

As for his victims — people with names like Almodovar and Guerrero and Rios and Flores — they most likely had great hopes for tomorrow and next year and the next decade. But that optimism and those dreams were cruelly taken from them by a furious man who could do nothing better with his life than stare backward into the distant past.

 


Old at Heart

Like many Gen Xers, I’m pretty tired of hearing how great the Baby Boomers were. Yes, they had amazing music, and that whole civil rights crusade is tough to top.

But as they age, Baby Boomers have made it clear that their bell-bottomed, peace-and-love, tune-in-turn-on idealism was a convenience of their youth, or it was the result of a loud minority that never reflected how most of them really felt.

I say this because recent surveys have shown a generation gap (really a chasm) between older and younger Americans on just about every social issue.

Perhaps this isn’t a big surprise, as people tend to get more conservative as they get older. But even with that caveat, some of the attitudes that Baby Boomers (especially white seniors) hold are alarming to Gen X and Millennials.

For example, more than half of white seniors “view the rise of newcomers from other countries as a threat to traditional American values and customs.” Let’s just say that most young people (many of whom have immigrant parents) don’t see things the same way.

And as anyone who has seen footage of a Trump rally can tell you, “much of the older white population — especially less-educated white males whose anger is being courted — appears threatened by the nation’s demographic change.”

 

Indeed, 60 percent of the white working class believe “that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

In addition to being whiny, narrow-minded, and xenophobic, this attitude is — how should I put this? — fucking suicidal.

You see, the “demographic reality is that America’s youth — and more specifically its racial minority youth — is its future.” That’s because Millennials are the most ethnically diverse generation in American history, and their future kids will be even more mixed. So there’s no going back to a 1950s mythological USA where everybody was white and things were gosh darn swell.

 

1950s

It also means that “because of the growth of Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other races, the United States will be able to replenish its younger population.”

Going forward, this implies that “America will not suffer a European-style demographic crisis as Baby Boomers retire. Young Latinos are stepping into the workplace and paying the taxes that will keep the nation’s fiscal house in order.”

Keep in mind that when it comes to Hispanics, we “are much younger than Americans as a whole, and young Latinos in America are better educated and earn more than ever.”

The bottom line is that “to ignore or wish away the nation’s youth-driven minority growth is short-sighted as a national economic development plan.”

Very soon, old Baby Boomers are going to be dependent on young Latinos to fund Social Security. But try explaining this fact, and you’re likely to be drowned out by a sixty-something cranking up Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock.

Yeah, I guess those were the good old days.

 


Help Is (Not) on the Way

I’ve never been in therapy. I don’t say this as a boast, just as a simple acknowledgement of luck.

You see, I’m fortunate in that I’ve haven’t been afflicted with depression or addiction or any of the myriad issues that arise when brain chemicals go all kabloowy. Nor have any of my personal traumas been so severe that I had to address the PTSD of it all.

But as we all know, many people aren’t so lucky. It’s estimated that around one in five Americans suffers from mental illness at some point in their lives.

And now comes news that for Latino youth, the numbers are on the rise. A recent study showed that “an alarming rise in the psychiatric hospitalizations of Latino children and young adults in California, even compared to the youth of other ethnicities.”

Between 2007 and 2014, the rate of mental health hospitalizations of young Latinos (age 21 and younger) jumped 86 percent.

upward-graph

Why is this?

Well, researchers believe that “a number of social issues play a part in the trend, including the recession, separation and disintegration of families, and the trauma of escaping the violence in their home countries.”

In addition, a “lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate psychiatric services available” means that young Hispanics often don’t get help addressing their festering problems, with the result that they eventually blossom into full-fledged crises that require hospitalization.

Also, one has to wonder if being constantly demonized gets under the skin of young Latinos. But this very fact — that so much of America despises Hispanics — provides another reason why this issue is unlikely to get better any time soon.

It’s a vicious, and rather sick, circle.


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