Monday, May 07, 2007

The French Connection

If you own a TV and don’t watch “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO, or haven’t considered getting a paid subscription to HBO because of this program, you either have a very fulfilling life (how disgusting!) or you’re too Republican (ditto…at least for the current lot in the Administration). The episode of Friday last, (Friday nights, 11:00pm ET) was one example of why this program, that so effectively mixes politics, opinion and comedy, is such a must-see. The major chunk of the show is devoted to discussions on politics and culture by 3 invited panelists and Bill Maher. And this week’s conversation between Harold Ford, Jr., Sean Penn and Garry Shandling was characteristically entertaining and hard-hitting. But in the segment that Maher calls “New Rules”, there was, what I consider, one of the finest moments of the ongoing season.

In the Republican world, particularly of the current Administration (you know the one disconnected from reality), the French are supposed to be effeminate, sybaritic and socialist while the Republicans like to think of themselves as macho (good to know that the civilizational threat posed by pheasants can be met adequately…on second thoughts…), hard-working (who needs Pedro from Oaxaca when they can clear brush by hand, as their day jobs are such a breeze) and practical (Military Strategy to a POLITICAL problem not working? Try MORE Military Strategy!!). It is worth producing the entire text of his New Rules commentary (some of it got edited out in the TV show), which is below, courtesy

New Rule: Conservatives have to stop rolling their eyes every time they hear the word France. Like just calling something French is the ultimate argument winner. "Aw, you want a healthcare system that covers everybody and costs half as much? You mean like they have in France? What's there to say about a country that was too stupid to get on board with our wonderfully conceived and brilliantly executed war in Iraq?"
Earlier this year, the Boston Globe got hold of an internal campaign document from GOP contender Mitt Romney, and a recurring strategy was to tie Democrats to the hated French. It said, in the Machiavellian code of the election huckster, "Hillary equals France," and it envisioned bumper stickers that read, "First, not France."
Except for one thing: We're not first. America isn't ranked anywhere near first in anything except military might and snotty billionaires. The country that is ranked No. 1 in healthcare,
for example, is France. The World Health Organization ranks America at 37 in the world -- not two, or five -- 37, in between Costa Rica and Slovenia, which are both years away from discovering dentistry.
Yet an American politician could not survive if he or she uttered the simple, true statement, "France has a better healthcare system than us, and we should steal it." Because here, simply dismissing an idea as French passes for an argument. John Kerry? Can't vote for him -- he looks French. Yeah, as opposed to the other guy, who just looked stupid.
I know, if God had wanted us to learn from the Enlightenment, he wouldn't have given us Sean Hannity.
And I'm not saying France is better than America. Because I assume you've already figured that out by now. I don't want to be French, I just want to take what's best from the French. Stealing, for your own self-interest -- Republicans should love this idea. Taking what's best from the French: You know who else did that? The Founding Fathers. Hate to sink your toy boat, Fox News, but the Founding Fathers, the ones you say you revere, were children of the French Enlightenment, and fans of it, and they turned it into a musical called the Constitution of the United States. And they did a helluva job, so good it has been said that it was written by geniuses so it could be run by idiots. But the current administration is putting that to the test. The Founding Fathers were erudite, well-read, European-thinking aristocrats -- they would have had nothing in common with, and no use for, an ill-read xenophobic bumpkin like George W. Bush.
The American ideas of individuality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech came directly out of the French Enlightenment -- but, shhh, don't tell Alabama. Voltaire wrote "men are born equal" before Jefferson was wise enough to steal it.
Countries are like people -- they tend to get smarter as they get older. Noted military genius Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed France as part of Old Europe, but the French are ... what's the word I'm looking for? Oh yeah, "mature." We think they're rude and snobby, but maybe that's because they're talking to us.
For example, France just had an election,
and people over there approach an election differently. They vote. Eighty-five percent turned out. The only thing 85 percent of Americans ever voted on was Sanjaya.
Maybe the high turnout has something to do with the fact that the French candidates are never asked where they stand on evolution, prayer in school, abortion, stem cell research or gay marriage. And if the candidate knows about a character in a book other than Jesus, it's not a drawback. There is no Pierre Six-pack who can be fooled by childish wedge issues. And the electorate doesn't vote for the guy they want to have a croissant with. Nor do they care about the candidate's private lives: In the current race, Ségolène Royal has four kids but never bothered to get married. And she's a socialist. In America, if a Democrat even thinks you're calling him a liberal he immediately grabs an orange vest and a rifle and heads into the woods to kill something.
The conservative candidate is married, but he and his wife live apart and lead separate lives. They aren't asked about it in the media, and the people are OK with it, for the same reason the people are OK with nude beaches: because they're not a nation of 6-year-olds who scream and giggle if they see pee-pee parts. They have weird ideas about privacy. They think it should be private. In France, everyone has a mistress. Even mistresses have mistresses. To not have a lady on the side says to the voters, "I'm no good at multitasking."
France has its faults -- the country has high unemployment, a nasty immigrant problem and all that ridiculous accordion music. But its healthcare is the best, it's not dependent on Mideast oil, it has the lowest poverty rate and the lowest income-inequality rate among industrialized nations, and it's the greenest, with the lowest carbon dumping and the lowest electricity bill.
France has 20,000 miles of railroads that work. We have the trolley at the mall that takes you from Pottery Barn to the Gap. It has bullet trains. We have bullets. France has public intellectuals. We have Dr. Phil. And France invented sex during the day, the ménage à trois, lingerie and the tongue.
And the French are not fat. Can't we just admit we could learn something from them?

Hear, hear.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Qaid Main Hai Bulbul*

Back after a long hiatus…may not be missed too much, though, buddy, you really kept the faith! And so did the Missus (she’s pulled through 5 months and has only minor regrets…so far!)

The reason for getting back is that I have the blogging-equivalent of that delicious feeling that overtakes you, if you’re of the poetic, literary bend…examples, of which, are provided below. That overwhelming feeling of wanting to compose a few lines of lapidary elegance and limpid grace…the gentle restlessness in your soul (also called, most effectively, as “fudakna” in Hindi) urging one to be sensitively evocative of an evanescent feeling…that fleeting moment of crystal clarity when one realizes the inner rhythm of ones’ soul…In other words, ladies and gentleman, the Hopelessly-Amateur-AND-Bad Poet

In the Washington DC area, where I currently reside, there is a Sunday morning TV program called “Chitramala”, which purports to be a weekly “catch-up” for all things cultural, social, financial and health-related, for the desi “bhailog” & “babylog”. In reality it consists of bad Bollywood songs and interviews (which, actually, consist of just some Bollywood stars saying “I am in the nations capital, Washington DC and you’re watching Chitramala”), mind-numbingly irrelevant financial advice, thunderingly obvious legal advice, bad Bollywood interviews, immigration advice by this dude who you can’t understand because of heavy Urdu usage, health advice from a doctor from “the Chantilly Medical Center located in Chantilly”, bad Bollywood interviews…you get the picture. Just your regular badly produced, immaturely hosted, extremely poorly researched and jarringly disjointed desi TV program in the Amreeka. But the best (worst) part is all of the dudes, above, when they say their piece, they usually follow-up with some of the most resoundingly bad “shayri” ever heard on this planet, nay the galaxies, nay in all of the parallel universes! There is, especially, this Sardarji who seems to be the resident poet, and who’s entire purpose, on this unintentional-comedy program, is to inflict his (non) poetry on us. One example (these guys don’t have a website, hence can’t link to anything here), which goes something like:

“Zindagi se kya shikva karre,
Dost aattee hain, chale jaate hain
...Aur phir naye aate hain”!!

[What shall I complain about life,
Friends come, and then friends go,
...and then new friends come!]

Then there’s the lawyer who looks to be an, frankly, offensive combination of fake empathy and sickening knowingness who nevertheless morphs into an “ustad” as soon as he’s done dispensing with his tie and putting on his favorite greasy soulful look. One of his priceless mutterings goes something like:

“Khamoshi ka kaisa aalam hai,
Tanhaiyee ka kaisa aalam hai..”!! (that’s it! Looks like it was time to get up from the potty, before he could compose something more at the end there!)

[Silence creates such an environment,
Loneliness creates such an environment...]

And, of course, there’s our main man, the anchor for the show. This dude deliberately makes his hair look like porcupine quills, doesn’t move even the slightest throughout the show as if he’s got hemorrhoids up the wazoo and delivers his shayri in such pathetic-accented Hindi that even Ghalib himself would’ve stopped writing his priceless poetry and taken up beedi-making if he knew his art were to inspire such awfulness. Picture hearing something like the below, in heavily accented Hindi:

“Manzil saamne hai aur tum bhi hoo,
Sochta hu kisse pehle pakdoo”!!

[My goal is in front of me and so are you,
Which one should I grab, methinks!!]

Sunday morning hilarity unlimited.

* - Reference to the popular song, from a Hindi movie, in which the Bulbul is metaphorically compared to India (the song, I think, was about inspiring people to throw off the colonial British yolk in the pre-independance days). Needless to say, we need some more liberating.