Pete Seeger

peteAre there distinguishing characteristics of Americans?  To my mind, one of the qualities that fits many of our “American originals” is idiosyncratic creativity – making your own path to success and keeping to it despite obstacles and opposition.  Pete Seeger is a great example of holding to your convictions and following through.  His mission was to make the world better – end wars, encourage cooperation, promote democracy – through music.  Despite personal attacks on him and his beliefs, including being blacklisted, Pete Seeger kept to his mission. He didn’t have a beautiful voice – he would be the first to mention that fact.  But his voice had the ring of authenticity and originality, reminiscent in that respect of Jonny Cash, Bob Dylan, or Kris Kristofferson.  His songs draw from American history and American circumstances but have resonated well beyond the borders of the U.S. American music has been one of our best, most positive exports, and reminds us of how much music is one of the human achievements that helps draw us all together.

One of the central ways Pete wanted to bring people together was through having them sing together.  Any concert he gave inevitably included sing-alongs.  He was especially eager to have children sing.  Up until his death, he volunteered at a local school to come in and teach and sing with the children.  One of my fondest memories of his music are his wonderful animal songs.  I remember playing “The Foolish Frog” over and over again for my children.  Pete had a serious mission in life but he knew the value and power of humor  – something which is evident in a lot of his songs.

Of the many tributes coming in now upon news of his death yesterday, that by Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic seems to me to have struck the right note: “His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.”

Anti-Semitism non-verbally

Quenelle-Anne-FrankAn op-ed piece in the NY Times today discusses the gesture invented by French comic Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, popularly known simply as Dieudonné. It’s a strange gesture, holding out the arm stiff, as in the Nazi salute, but pointing it down, and folding the other arm across the chest.  Dieudonné has named it the quenelle, the French name of a large meat dumpling. It’s widely recognized as an anti-Semitic gesture, with its obvious echo of Nazism, although according to Dieudonné it’s just meant to be anti-system.  That however stands in the face of Dieudonné’s public anti-Jewish statements and positions in the past.  Dieudonné’s fans have recognized the true meaning of the gesture, using it in front of synagogues, the Berlin holocaust memorial, or as pictured here in front of an Anne Frank poster. Due to it being illegal in France to “incite racial hatred”, Dieudonné’s shows have been banned in France, creating quite an uproar.

The author of the op-ed, Sylvain Cypel, sees the quenelle as pointing to something troubling in French society: “The Dieudonné affair is symptomatic of an insidious slide toward intolerance, but anti-Semitism is the least of it; racism and xenophobia manifest themselves more often as anti-Arab, anti-Muslim or anti-black.” She cites such examples as the black minister of justice, Christiane Taubira, being called a “monkey” or swastikas being spray-painted on the headstones of French Muslim soldiers.  Not all intolerance is so blatant or ugly, the coded racism of the Front National now has a friendly face with Maxime Le Pen but the essential positions remain the same.  One shouldn’t just point the finger at France.  Unfortunately, the intolerance to Others (especially the Others having darker skin and a different religion) is wide-spread in Europe these days with far right, nationalistic political parties having significant popular support in a number of European countries. Those parties tend to also be opposed to the European Union.  Let’s hope that, as has historically been the case, that this kind of far-right populism is tied to the bad economy and that once the European economy recovers, the political situation will change.

Frau Merkel’s lover

16933418,14048206,highRes,1344610095Sorry, there isn’t one. François Hollande, her counterpart across the Rhein?  Sure, he’s French.  The stories in the news recently from France and Germany make it hard to imagine that the two cultures have Charlemagne (Karl der Große) as a common ancestor, or that they share much at all in terms of values and way of life. It’s nothing surprising or shocking in France that a politician would have a maîtresse, even a politician as uncharismatic and down-to-earth as François Hollande. Just because they are elected to public office, French politicians aren’t expected to stop being human or men or French.

In Germany one expects politicians to be serious, that is to say, to focus on their responsibilities and to do their duty.  Such extra-curricular activities are verboten as an unnecessary and unwanted distraction.  How do German leaders break the public trust?  If they plagiarize on their university theses, as has caused the downfall of several ministers in the last few years (dishonesty).  Or they fall behind schedule on a building project, such as the debacle over the years late new Berlin airport (incompetence).  Or they spend an inordinate amount of public money (in this case from Church tax paying German Catholics) on luxury for themselves (extravagance), as did the “bling bishop” (Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg).

The big news in Germany in recent days has nothing to do with lovers or sex, but instead with something much closer to the hearts of many Germans: their automobiles.  The scandal in the news is the sudden loss of trust in an organization Germans depend on and see as the ideal complement to their cars, namely their automobile association, the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). The ADAC has served as the trusted advisor to German car owners and prospective car buyers since 1903.  The most widely published periodical in Germany is not Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, it is the ADAC Motorwelt (motor world). Now it turns out that data supplied by the ADAC (for example on the number of votes for car of the year) has in some cases been either manipulated or invented, possibly in order to inflate the importance of the organization in order to gain more members.  This is not just dishonesty, incompetence and greed – it’s all three combined to swindle Germans in relation to their prize possession, the symbol of German economic power and engineering prowess. Mein Gott, o Gott! 

Unlike their preferences in cars, Germans don’t like flashy leaders.  What they do value in leaders and cars is dependability and familiarity – just the qualities the reliable and consistent Mutti Merkel provides.  Mutti take a lover?  No way.

Homophobia & Colonialism

uganda-anti-gayAmong the legacies of colonialism are habits and attitudes brought by the colonizing powers and which persist beyond the colonial period. That may be in some cases a taste for particular foods or styles of preparation – for example, the Portuguese treats I remember enjoying in Macau (at a casino food court, no less). The French influence on Vietnamese cuisine is another example (although pho may or may not be related to pot-au-feu). Even more evident is of course language, with India, Pakistan, the Philippines or Hong Kong taking advantage of the historical role of English to foster wide use of that language in business and education. But the few instances of positive colonial legacies pale in comparison to the pernicious cultural, economic, and political legacies of the colonial powers.  That includes suppression of native languages along with countless other acts of cultural imperialism.

What we are witnessing now in Uganda is just such a sad legacy. As discussed in a piece in the Think Africa Press, one of the sources of homophobic attitudes in that and other African countries is a holdover from imported and imposed Victorian concepts of sexuality.  There are of course other factors involved as well, one being the anti-Western backlash against what can be seen as neo-colonial pressure for Ugandans not to pass anti-gay legislation.  Another being the possible influence of American evangelicals. Uganda is by no means alone, According to the International Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), there are at least 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal. Many have colonial histories as well but by no means all, and not all former colonies have Victorian attitudes to blame.  Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its wide-spread popular support seem sadly to be home-grown.

Uganda’s President indicated recently that he will not sign the anti-gay bill passed by the legislature.  His explanation – homosexuals are “abnormal” and “sick” and need to be rehabilitated. His views join a long list of world leaders making unfortunate remarks about gays in their countries, from Putin to former Iranian President Ahmadinejad who famously stated that there were no gays in Iran.

Beer and democracy

singhabeerIf you see beer being poured over someone’s feet, what would be your reaction?  In Thailand, this is disparaging action and part of a protest against a prominent beer brand, Singha.  It’s not a protest concerning the quality of the product – Singha is a well-known brand.  It concerns comments from Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, 28, the Singha beer heiress who was quoted last month in a widely circulated article saying that many Thais lack a “true understanding” of democracy, “especially in the rural areas.” This comes from a NY Times article published this week-end.  She was reacting to the continued support for the current government, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, from Thais in the poor, rural areas of the country. The Singha heiress is part of the group trying to oust the Prime Minister.  In contrast to what one normally expects from protests – namely a call for more democracy, the rich and powerful in Thailand are calling for less democracy, “The demonstrators want a hiatus from democracy, replacing it with rule by a ‘people’s council’ selected from various professions in the country. Many say they yearn for a return to the absolute monarchy because Thailand is not ready for democracy.”

The Thai protest against the government is reminiscent of last year’s action in Egypt, ousting a legally and democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi.  Of course, the situation in Thailand and Egypt are quite different, but they do point to a worrisome trend, away from changing leaders through elections, and instead forcing them out through a military coup or other actions.