Monday, January 30, 2017

On Riblje oko

This morning I finally left my apartment, even though I didn't get much sleep last night and I haven't fully recovered. I had an interview with Joško Marušić, one of the youngest members of the Zagreb School. I don't plan on writing in any detail about interviews I conduct with animators until I finish my dissertation. I will only note that we spoke in a chilly, dark coffee shop next to a fireplace. The coffee shop was located in the courtyard of the Academy of Fine Arts, where Marušić teaches, which was founded in 1907. The courtyard has several fine statues, including a piece by Ivan Meštrović. Behind the coffeeshop, a few feet away and down the stairs, is a small bar that opens at 6:30 in the morning. It was playing Romany music. The bar and the coffeeshop are owned by the same person. Zagreb also has nice Seattle-style coffee-shops and bars that don't open early. I only note these details to say that there are reasons why you should travel, and even though I tend not to drink, there are times when drinking in the early morning can be better for you than drinking at night. 

You can see Marušić's most famous film Riblje oko / Fish Eye (1980) at Zagreb Film's website.

Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are gorging themselves on a cannibal's dinner. The liver of an Iraqi translator. The kidney of a Syrian. The heart of a Sudanese. For drink, the blood of a Jew. Paul Ryan comes to the party late and a little embarrassed. He tastes the Jew's blood and doesn't like it, but he can tolerate the Iraqi-translator liver. Mike Pence serves desert, homosexual testicles dipped in his wife's homemade chocolate. There's a large crowd of people trying to break into the butchershop they go to, located about a half-hour away from their apartment, but their butchershop is well-guarded. There are a lot of polite people in suits in another room, having another, less well-attended party. They are saying that they support the people trying to break into the butchershop. They scold Trump and Bannon. "It's not okay to eat the liver or an Iraqi translator. It's not okay to drink a Jewish person's blood. And, even though we didn't realize this until relatively recently, we shouldn't be eating the testicles of homosexuals." Trump chews with his mouth open and laughs a bit, spitting a little bit of Jew's blood mixed with homosexual testicles on Ryan's cheek. Ryan doesn't wipe it off for fear of offending his host.

I think you should watch Riblje oko. It captures the current mood.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On Buying Ziploc Bags

If it's 3 am in Seattle and I have a headache and I don't have any Advil in my house, I can jump in my car and go to the local QFC to buy some. If I didn't have a car, there's a decent chance if admittedly no guarantee that there's a 24-hour gas station/store-of-some-sort within walking distance of my home. I had a booming headache duing my second night here in Zagreb last week. I went out at 11 pm and searched for a ljekarna -- a drugstore you can recognize a block away thanks to neon green crosses -- that was open. None of the ljekarna-s where open. The late-night CVS-counterparts in Zagreb, at least the ones I went to, didn't have Advil. I went home and toughed out the night. By the next morning my headache was gone, but I bought some ibuprofen at a ljekarna just for the future. I came down with a flu this afternoon, and I'm glad I have it on hand.

There have been other things. There are two markets within walking distance of my apartment. One is a Lidl. It is small, brightly lit and always crowded. The other is large and most of it looks like a warehouse, until you get to the very back of the store where the meat section is pleasant. Everything in both stores are where it's supposed to be, assuming they have it, but none of it is made to look pretty. When you shop at these places there's no irritating music in the background.

There are things they don't have that I usually eat. If I want to eat fish, I have to go to a ribarnica, and I've stopped off at the one in Zagreb's Dolac Market a few times to get salmon, catfish, and tuna. But I couldn't get any tilapia. Both markets are stacked with Barilla pasta, but I haven't found whole wheat pasta. I've had a hard time locating good fresh fruit. The only familiar candy brand are Kit Kat bars. If I still bothered, I could drink Coca Cola.

I had to buy a separate role of aluminum foil, but not one with a special box which would allow me to cut it off piece by piece as need be. I couldn't find a vacuum-sealed zipbloc bags, so I settled for plastic bags that you tie manually and hope for the best.

There's a pekara on every street and you can always get a nice krafna donut. If I ate out a lot, I would be eating a lot of čevapi and probably some good pizza. I know where to go.

The transporation system? Better than what you have in Seattle. Easier to manage than what you have in Washington, D.C. The buses and trams come semi-regularly and they usually come when they're supposed to come. Garbage: It's not hard to throw out my trash and I'm actually relieved not to have to care about recycling that much. There are plenty of broken exteriors and dilapidated benches but the streets are clean.

I don't know enough to say why certain things are readily available and certain things are not or why it's hard to get ibuprofen in a sizable city with a significant population that stays out at night. Tariffs? Cultural differences? Economic crisis? None of what I've described are big problems. The city has big problems. The mayor is a lower-case Donald Trump, the worst kind of crony capitalist, and there are plenty of basic utilities that through the years have periodically not worked that should work.

I'm just thinking of the small details -- the particularly things you are forced to notice when you try to cook yourself the same meal you eat when you're in the States -- that add up to a culture, one that is created by forces beyond anyone's understanding.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On the Eve

I spent the majority of the Obama Administration as a graduate student, surrounded by people who couldn't vote for him because they saw him as a neoliberal tool, others who voted for him as the lesser of two evils, and a minority that more or less liked him. I was in the third group, but dipped my toe in the second. Have my beliefs changed in the last eight years? Well, I should hope so. I should hope they change for everyone. Otherwise, you're not human. My 36-year-old self is more strongly pro-union, because he's in one, less gung-ho about gay rights, because we have them, more concerned about economic policy, because he would like a nicer apartment and because he's finally spent a significant amount of time with people who make up the lower 75 percentile of the US population. He feels the same way about the prison industrial complex and imperial warfare. 

On the identity politics front, I can't imagine a president I could relate to more. As someone who hates bombs more than guns, I will admit to being irritated by his priorities and his moral compromises. As someone who thinks we are on the verge of the environmental apocalypse, I am troubled by the melancholy thought that neither Obama nor his successor will be discussed all that much in another 200 years. 

I have another hour of reading about animation ahead of me. Then I'm going to enjoy a nice dinner in the city center. 

Oh, and if you can indulge a little obnoxious mansplaining from someone who isn't even in the country on the eve of the women's march on Washington: It's heartening to see so many people who would never have thought to protest for any cause rise up. Maybe Lenin was right. We needed it all to get as bad as possible before it got any better. But your protest means nothing if you don't get organized, if you don't get leaders. Be vertical, not horizontal. Be inclusive, but don't compromise with every jerk in your ranks. Don't ask yourself if you're a good ally. Just help people. Allow yourselves to make mistakes, but always know your goal. The goal is not to feel good or be good, but to do good.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

On My First Week in Zagreb

In the past year and a half I've applied for several grants to come to Zagreb to research my dissertation. I was turned down for all of them, but thanks to an extra 10 hr/week part-time reading job I took in the fall quarter, I was able to pay for a two-month trip here. I arrived on Monday. My Airbnb apartment is on the sixteenth floor of a 1970s building in Trešnjevka, from which I have a three-quarter view of a lovely Austro-Hungarian/socialist city, and the surrounding mountains. I'm a ten-minute walk from the main train station. The tracks run across the street, but I'm not bothered by the noise. The sports stadium is across the street on the other side. There's a tall utility building which belches smoke throughout the day. I've lived in claustrophobic holes for the past 15 years and this is the nicest, most spacious apartment I've ever had. The weather forecast is cold but very sunny for the next 10 days.

Croats and Slovenes, particularly urbanites, are supposed to be the snobs of the former Yugoslavia, as compared to the more open Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians. But everyone has been friendly -- the fishmonger, the geography student at the National and University Library, the guy at the messy, understocked grocery store next door, the lady I almost knocked over with my shopping bags on the tram -- often patiently helping me through my lousy Croatian even though they speak perfect English. Old people look more interesting here and they wear nice hats. I hate the obnoxious music that every cafe seems to be under penalty of death to blast, but other than that I'm happy here. I'm romanticizing the culture and I don't care. I really don't want to go home.

In the next few days, I will be meeting a writer I greatly admire, a Zelig of Yugoslav history. Over the next two months, I will be interviewing eight of the surviving auteurs of the Zagreb School. I visited the National and University Library this afternoon, and collected citations on dozens of materials. I'll be returning on next week. I'm still jetlagged, and it's almost midnight and I'm up late watching movies I've watched dozens of times before, taking notes for meetings. It's almost as if I'm watching all these cartoons for the first time.

I've avoided the news, because I don't want to be in an American or 2017 state of mind. My profession, my way of life back home, and the liberal society I believe in is all going to hell, but I'm in no position to be an activist, or -- a character I believe is far more effective -- an organizer, at least for the moment.  Where was I when the tyrant gave his acceptance speech in the early morning hours EST on November 9? At a bar in Wallingford, with a Marxist friend screaming that he gave in and voted for Hillary Clinton for nothing. Where will I be when the transfer takes place, eighteen hours from now? Watching cartoons. Reading Yugoslav animators' treatises from the 1950s. Taking notes. In my apartment. In Zagreb.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

On Hate Crimes

Four teenagers kidnapped and tortured a young man with disabilities live on camera. As a believer in restorative justice, particularly for young offenders, this is the kind of crime that tests my faith. Intellectually, I believe restorative justice should still be a possibility in this case. Emotionally, it's a slightly different story. I don't need to see these teenagers sent to prison for a 20 years, but I wouldn't be upset by such an outcome.

The bigger question at the moment, the one that will bring out the worst in at least a few people who try to answer it, is whether or not the attack constitutes a hate crime. The (black) teenagers hurled epithets at their (white) victim, attacking him for the color of his skin and associating him with the country's most famous white supremacist who will also soon become the most powerful man in the world. There's also a suggestion that the attack constitutes a hate crime because the victim had special needs, although there haven't been any quotations from the video that back that up. If the victim was attacked for being white, we'd have a problem, because black people are oppressed in our society and white people are not. If the victim was attacked for having special needs, we wouldn't have as much of a problem, because people with special needs are oppressed in our society and people without them are not. When the Democratic Party was pushing for hate crime legislation in the 1990s, this was not the case they had in mind. 

The investigators are trying to figure out the central motive behind the crime. Their reticence suggests a truism. Humans are complicated moral actors and they perform wicked as well as good deeds due to a variety of interweaving and sometimes contradictory motives. Hate crimes, crimes in which the primary motive is clearly related to the victim's membership in an oppressed group, are real. But in most hate crimes, as in most crimes, there are a riot of factors. Did he kill the black kid at a gas station because he just couldn't deal with godawful rap music interrupting his otherwise good day? Did they crucify that gay kid because they were panicking over their own masculinity or because that drug deal went south? A combination of those factors and probably several more. Did these kids attack the white boy with special needs because they needed to please one another, because they were afraid of what they thought of as an imperfect body or imperfect mind, because they saw him of all the white people in the world, in a twisted way, as their oppressor? Did they wish to pick on the weakest member of an opposing tribe during a moment of peak racial tension to make a point? When we become bad novelists or armchair psychologists and isolate the attack to a single motive we are effectively punishing thoughts not actions.

One of the strongest provisions of hate crime legislation are prohibitions on attorneys from employing arguments that would defend the idea of hate crimes. "My client, like many of you, is afraid of men in high heels. Surely, you can understand where he was coming from?" One of the weakest are the requirements for stiffer penalties on the grounds that a hate crime doesn't just attack an individual but all members of that individual's group. Those stiffer penalties satisfy society's sense of moral decency, allows it to contain the evils of bigotry within one complicated human actor. They don't prevent hate crimes.

I'm writing this while a young sociopath is on trial for opening fire on group of sweet black churchgoers, members of one of the most important sites in civil rights history. Dylan Roof has offered no means to claim he had anything other than racism in his heart. So, yes there are hate crimes that don't deserve further, deeper examinations of the criminal's motives.  But in the end, I can't see how the blunt instruments of the American legal system could sort out the psychology of most of those who commit hate crimes.

If you absolutely still believe in hate crime legislation, and all of its provisions, I will make one final suggestion. If you want to see a society with less racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, wouldn't figuring out a way to reform people who commit hate crimes be a priority? And wouldn't figuring out how that hatred fits with so many other factors be worth studying? And, if so, doesn't restorative justice rather than stiffer penalties sound like a better means of getting to where we want to be?