Politique des Amis

First I bought a train ticket, then a pack of chewing gum. I fixed the wiring of my headphones with the gum, caught the train with the ticket, and set off to meet H.

One hour of techno mp3s and motion sickness later he met me exactly on time, which is just typical, and fifteen minutes later were were arguing about international politics.

Politically H has drifted somewhat to the right, which I suppose goes with getting a steady job and a mortgage - at age thirty nine after a life of academia and mindbroadening travel. Essentially he accepts the line that America is a non-imperial power acting mainly to prevent Arab imperialism by spreading democracy, its mistakes are due do George Bush being an insufficiently reined-in idiot, being in a war against muslims hasn't increased racism, and there really is a terrorist threat.

It's probably a good thing my disagreement on all these points was interrupted by a phone call from his mum.

I got to meet his friend Abo (I think), who is a computer technician, socialist, fan of artificial languages and speaker of Esperanto. Usually I have to explain such notions as DHCP, Cliffism and Lojban before talking about them - it was oddly disconcerting to chat with someone who knows more than I do about all the subjects people think I'm strange for knowing.

A bit like looking in a mirror - except that he's (a) French African and (b) possibly the gayest acting straight man I've ever met.

There was also Uve, H's German boyfriend. Who, unbelievably, had never heard of Doctor Who. so we spent half an hour trying to explain why a kid's adventure show about a timetravelling telephone box is (a) the longest running TV show in the world (b) a defining trope of British culture and (c) an essential part of being a gay man.

He thought the daleks looked like S&M dildos.

H and me spent most of the day applying multiple coats of green dulux to his bedroom wall. Yesterday I had one pair of jeans that didn't have paint stains - today I don't.

When the others had gone, we had a good long heart-to-heart about what it means to be happy with your life, why I'm not, and what I could do about it.

This is why I missed him - we could always argue about politics, and criticise each other's life choices, without it ever becoming personal. I may not like what he has to say about my situation, and in the end I may or may not agree with it, but I have to take it on board, because it's never meant either as insult of compliment.

I slept on a spare bed, and seeing as I'd contrived to be awake for the past 48 hours, snored like a log.

First thing I did back in Portsmouth - buy new a pair of headphones. In the shop there was a woman in front of me who couldn't see why she wasn't able to pay in US dollars. The argument went on for some minutes before she walked out in baffled disgust.

The staff all agreed that her behavior was just typical of American arrogance. When did this little cultural shift happen? When did shop assistants unselfconsciously criticise customers in front of other customers (namely, me)? And more than that, when did oafishness from ordinary American citizens become unsurprising, even expected?

I've met plenty of Americans - they've all been decent, interesting, intelligent folk, and I can't imagine my experience is unique. So when did this woman's behavior stop being regarded as bizarre and exceptional, and start being just the way those bloody yanks behave all the time?

On Monday evening, a forum on "Refugees and Globalisation". The speaker gave an intriguing central thesis, which I'd not considered in detail before.

We tend to regard forced migration as a byproduct of economic and social failures and crises. When economies collapse, wars flare up over shortages, or scapegoating turns to ethnic cleansing, tens of thousands of people migrate simply to survive.

But what if the production of refugees isn't a result of the system's failures, but an integral part of the way the system works? We're not talking about some global conspiracy to destabilise infrastructures and flood the world with cheap labour as and when it's needed.

No, just as price fixing cartels are sometimes a product of successful competition rather than a failure of competition, just as the police have to become corrupt to do their jobs effectively, modern forced migration is both a result of globalised capitalism, and a sustainer of it.

Some people have "Eureka!" moments when a few seconds of insight show a pattern in apparent chaos. These forums give me "Doh!" moments, where what should have been obvious all along stands out in sharp relief.


  1. I've served customers who have wanted to pay in Canadian dollars and Mexican pesos. Some establishments along the respective borders accept foreign currency. Most don't because they have figure out the exchange. In Michigan, it's not unheard of to have half your coins end up being Canadian.

    Occasionally, I'll run into some British or Euro coinage. In those events, I hold them and try to repatriate them by waiting for tourists to come through. I give them the extra change telling them to take it back. It's no good here.

    No one in the shop said to that woman, "Because this isn't America."

  2. "The staff all agreed that her behavior was just typical of American arrogance."

    That is scary. I think it might be projecting attitudes about high-profile Americans onto the everyday Americans. There's so much diversity in America I hope we don't get typecast a certain way abroad.

  3. Well, I wouldn't like to cause Brian any «pain» whatsoever, the truth is, however, that also around here we get the same kind of odd behaviours by common Americans...
    A few days ago an American woman speaking the very same way Bush does entered the tobacco shop I was in and started to speak English loud and clear to everyone around, as if it were only normal and obvious that we all should speak English... Well, for that purpose we had to understand what she was saying in the first place, anyway... Then a friend said to her loud and clear as well: «YOU are supposed to speak Portuguese the minute you enter this shop. Or ask if someone speaks English.»
    She was quite astonished, as if all that were a big surprise to her...
    Don't we all speak English?! Everywhere?!