Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tourist price, local price and privilege

Sometimes you'll find yourself in a developing country, and being charged a fee to enter a tourist attraction that is substantially higher than what locals would pay. 10 times the price is not unusual.

Is this unfair? Discriminatory? Cause for outrage?

Plenty of people on Tripadvisor clearly think it is. Here are a few excerpts from reviews of the Peradeniya botanical gardens in Sri Lanka (the country I'm in right now):

AmyB1978 from Melbourne says:
Paying for entry to Botanic Gardens is new to me. We have one of the oldest and most beautiful at home and its free. It's free in every other country I visited too. Bad enough to pay but to spend USD$15 for an adult and a student to enter is ridiculous. We were incredulous at the racist pricing which is extra for foreigners! Do you not want tourists to come to your country?!

While p31893189 says:
Unless you are a real plant enthusiast, these gardens can be skipped. It is expensive to get there and the whopping 1100 rupee fee (locals pay 50) was more than what was charged to see the Tooth Relic. We really felt we were being gouged just because we were tourists.

Or at Kandy's "Temple of the Tooth", where TravelHappilyToday from the Netherlands said:

 As buddhists we came to worship at this place, however foreigners (like anywhere else in Sri Lanka) are extremely discriminated and have to pay 1000LKR for entry, while locals pay nothing.

Oh, the pain and suffering! There are few who have faced such racism and discrimination as the white tourist abroad.

Lest I be accused of snobbery and insensitivity towards budget tourists, let me state that I fall firmly into the budget category as well, and have travelled throughout Asia a great deal on minimal outlay. But there's a difference between being thrifty and being cheap. If you are wondering, 1000 LKR (Sri Lankan Rupees) is about USD$7, give or take. Is that a "whopping" charge? That really depends on the context. If I were in my own first-world country and someone charged me that much to enter a botanic garden, I'd think twice. But if I were a tourist in a foreign country? Well, given that I had the thousand-odd dollars spare that it cost to get to Sri Lanka, and am now there with time on my hands looking for something to do, then why not? It is, after all, the cost of a couple of coffees to me, whereas it'd be 10 coffees to a Sri Lankan, if they had to pay the same price.

The line "Do you not want tourists to come to your country?" Is my favorite because of what seems like a total obliviousness. Yes, of course Sri Lanka wants tourists to come, but why? Is it because they have a selfless desire to see foreigners enjoy themselves? Tourism is an industry, and the main reason any country wants to attract tourists is because of the money that they bring, which stimulates the economy and creates jobs. That's not the same as being greedy, and its not incompatible with friendliness and hospitality. A Sri Lankan tourist attraction no doubt wants to be affordable enough for locals to enjoy, locals who are by no means wealthy. But if it charges the same prices to foreigners, it will not generate enough income to pay for upkeep and maintenance, unless it has either a substantial taxpayer-funded injection of funds or a donation from private benefactors. Government-funded public works are easy to take for granted when your country has one of the highest standards of living in the world, less so if your country hovers around 112th in GDP per capita.

Tourism is an exchange, in which both sides should benefit. Unfortunately some tourists seem to think its an equation which should only benefit them.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup 2014 Predictions

Lots of teams can be dismissed from contention straight away, which is not to say they won't be enteraining (I loved Ghana's run to the quarter-finals last time round, even though they were never going to win it).

The rest of them I shall organise into categories.

Chile, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Bosnia. At least 2 of them will make the quarters, one might make the semis.

Netherlands and Mexico are going through very poor phases right now. Round of 16 at best.

Belgium - talented, but inexperience will tell. Try again in 2018.
France - will get out of a weak group but won't get much further.
Italy, England, Uruguay - one of them ain't getting out of the group, and all three seem like "almost" teams to me at best.

Spain - Number one in the world, but their golden generation is getting old. Will do well but not that well.
Portugal - good overall squad but I can't believe they still don't have a decent striker. This means that opponents can focus on stopping Ronaldo, who will have to play like Hercules to drag them to the finish line. A possibility.
Germany - An amazing squad but lacking in a top-class proper centre forward due to the injury to Mario Gomez. Top-notch coaching will be required to get everything to click enough to overcome that.
Brazil - Don't look a patch on the Selecao squads of old, they lack a true superstar, and will need to make the most of their home country advantage. I don't see it happening.

This leaves:

Argentina - Outrageously gifted group of attacking players means that they don't need Messi to do it all. They are used to playing in South America. Their defence is a slight concern, as well as how to get the right balance in a squad that is stacked with riches going forward. But I think they can do it.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

World: meet our great prime minister

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver turns its gaze this week to Australia's esteemed PM Tony Abbott. He's not the most popular man in the country, but with a nicely edited highlights reel such as this one, it reminds you how odd it is that he ever rose to his current station.

Of course, Abbott's rise to power has a lot to do with the rise and fall of the previous Labor government. After Kevin Rudd shot to the top office in 2007, he was so popular that the defeated Liberal-National Coalition descended into dysfunction, deposing its two leaders in relatively quick succession. Both men, Dr Brendan Nelson and particularly Malcolm Turnbull, were generally seen as more credible leaders than Abbott, who filled their spot almost by default. Abbott was seen as un-electable in some quarters, but as the Labor government's popularity began to erode due to infighting and a growing perception of incompetence, all Abbott had to do was not muck it up too badly. Its a rather damning indictment of Labor's recent performances that he is now in charge, and a reminder that sometimes timing is everything in politics.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The farcical nature of the Donald Sterling issue

Earlier this week, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was revealed by TMZ to have made comments to a female associate (mistress? personal assistant? girlfriend?) that he didn't want her associating with black people. Following the ensuing furore, the NBA responded by fining Sterling the maximum amount of $2.5 million, banning him for life, and endeavouring to force him to sell the Clippers franchise.

A victory against racism? That's debatable, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as much as Sterling undoubtedly possesses some deplorable views on race, the comments he's copped hell for were not public pronouncements, but a secretly recorded private conversation. Fining a person for millions of dollars (even if that's a drop in the bucket for Sterling) for something they say privately, is reminiscent the "thought police" described in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. Had he expressed his distasteful views about black people in a public forum, then the punishment might have some justification. I'm not saying private comments such as Sterling's should never be aired; it is often in the public interest to know the sort of things a public figure says when he is away from the public eye. But it's a dangerous area to get into, particularly as we say all kinds of ill-considered things in private which we might think better of in a public context. In any case, an official punishment is crossing a line into heavy-handedness.

But a sadder issue is that this is hardly the first time that Sterling's racism has been made public, and earlier instances have in fact been far worse. The Clippers owner has been the subject of a discrimination lawsuit in the past for deliberately excluding blacks and Latinos from renting properties that he owns. This is real racism that actually affects lots of people's lives in a meaningful way, but it did not make big news.

The man at the heart of exposing these earlier instances of racism is ESPN journalist Bomani Jones, and in this radio interview he exposes the reaction to this issue for the farce that it is:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

#CancelColbert? OMG WTF

All things being equal, the Left tends to have a far better sense of humour than the Right. The best comedy tends to be that which is poking fun at the powerful rather than the weak, and making observations that are at odds with what would be considered traditionally normal and proper.

The paradox is that while the Right's reactionary nature is what makes it less well-suited to comedy, the Left has its own very reactionary side, determined to stand up for the powerless against the powerful at all times. This fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, able-ism and the like doesn't always sit well with the comedic modus operandi of bucking against the boundaries what is normally considered polite conversation. It's a fine line to tread. Louis CK has been strongly criticized for, among other things, repeatedly referring to Sarah Palin as a "c**t"; yet he is nonetheless very popular on the left for the the liberal underpinnings of his philosophical outlook (he's one of few people who can discuss male privilege and white privilege and be hilarious at the same time). Indian-Canadian Russell Peters became a worldwide star for stand-up routines that are little more than a collection of racial stereotypes, which would get lesser comedians into trouble, yet the underlying theme is that cultural diversity is wonderful and fascinating. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle was attacked by the PC police for using the words "Paki" and "nigger" in a joke about casualties of war, yet he used the terms to illustrate the callous indifference the West has towards dark-skinned people killed in far-off places. Clearly however, a lot of people heard those two incendiary terms and chose to disregard any other contextual considerations.

So to this week's fiasco of left-wing activists vs Stephen Colbert, whose popular show The Colbert Report is a satire of right-wing news. From the Washington Post:

If you’re making fun of someone else’s racism, is it still possible to be racist? Stephen Colbert found himself in quite the mess after his “Colbert Report” tweeted a quote from his Wednesday night show, making fun of Washington football team owner Daniel Snyder:
“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” the Colbert Report posted in a March 27 tweet that was later taken down. The Report later clarified that the account is a publicity account run by the Comedy Central network, not Colbert, nor his show.
Snyder was pilloried by the online Native American community Monday night after releasing a four-page letter saying that he would be creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Many were outraged by what they felt was an ersatz show of support from the man who refuses to change the team’s name, which many consider a slur.
But things didn’t go much better for Colbert, who became the target of a #CancelColbert Twitter hashtag started by those who found the tweet offensive. Suey Park, the hashtag activist responsible for #NotYourAsianSidekick, said she would continue calling for Colbert’s job until he issued an apology. 

Following this, Suey Park appeared on Huffington Post Live, in which her exchange with host Josh Zepps ends in fairly uncomfortable circumstances:

There are a couple of ways to look at this. On one hand, it shows two male white liberal journalists shutting down dismissively a woman of colour because her opinions challenge theirs. It's a demonstration of white male privilege in action. Alternatively, you could judge that regardless of the fact that she is non-white and a woman, her opinion is being treated that way because, as Zepps says, "it's a stupid opinion".

Unsuprisingly, people retweeting #CancelColbert chose to take the former perspective. And they may well have a point. It does raise something worth discussing though; is calling out someone else's privilege just another way of playing the race or gender card? When Zepps argues with her, Park basically says that as a white male, he is incapable of seeing the issue from the perspective of a person of colour, and thus his opinion is effectively irrelevant. Now, I won't deny that there are lots of instances of white people being unable to see things from a non-white perspective. White privilege is a real thing, as is male privilege. But Park's argument boils down to this: I'm right, because I'm a woman of colour.

How does anyone argue with that?

Let's bear in mind that "people of colour" (a term I really hate hearing, to be honest, but let's not dwell on that for now) are not an amorphous mass and the #CancelColbert mob do not speak for all POCs. As an example, Korean-American actor Stephen Yeun had a civil debate over Twitter with Park, defending Colbert's satire. However many POC found Colbert's segment offensive (or more pertinently, found the out-of-context Tweet offensive), there were clearly plenty who didn't. As a POC (ugh) myself, let me say that I don't think it's offensive at all and think it's perfectly legitimate satire. But then again, I'm half-white too so maybe that's just my white privilege talking.

My worry is that this is representative of the way that left-activism is going. People like Park might think they are raising awareness of how Asian-Americans and others are marginalized by the mainstream, but they are simultaneously entrenching the divide by making POC a sort of privileged class who alone can dictate what is offensive to them, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. And if you are white and offend a POC, there is no way to prove that they may have misunderstood, so only an apology will suffice. I just don't think this will be acceptable to white people as a whole, and so this is the kind of approach that will merely alienate whites who would otherwise be allies.

One inevitable side effect of this controversy was that Park received lots of offensive tweets, with racist and sexist comments as well as death threats and rape threats (unfortunately to be expected for women in social media these days). This sort of abuse is completely unjustifiable, but it does show that Park is right in a sense - white liberals (the primary Colbert audience) may see themselves as progressive, but their ranks do contain many who will show an ugly sexist and racist side when the shit goes down.

Who wins out of all this? The Right, of course. Which is probably why whacko Asian-American conservative Michelle Malkin jumped on board to support #CancelColbert. When you are being supported by a right-wing nut who is on record as thinking the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans was a good thing, perhaps its time to reconsider your direction. Jezebel has a good take on all of this.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hari Kondabolu on Letterman

Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu is the sort of comedian beloved by many a left-wing thinker - the nerdy brown guy critiquing issues of race and identity. But first and foremost it's got to be funny, and fortunately he's got just enough good jokes so that it doesn't just feel like a sociology lecture. It's not really everyone's bag though, and you can sort of sense that at least some of the Letterman audience (somewhat older and whiter than say, the Jimmy Fallon or Conan O'Brien audience) is feeling a wee bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Someone has made Malaysia's own version of "Happy"

Pharrell Williams hit Happy is just about my favourite track of the last few months: fun, infectious but not horribly cheesy. Its video has been a big part of its appeal, and it has spawned a few montages of people grooving to the song. This one is shot in and around Kuala Lumpur, and some of the streetscapes are recognisable even to an occasional visitor like myself. It could have been lame, but fortunately it's not.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This week on the Youtubes

This surreal German supermarket commercial may just be this years Gangnam Style. See Slate for some context.

For some reason I can never get sick of people finding new ways to play the Super Mario Brothers theme.

This clip is from Scottish reality-documentary show thingy "The Street", showing the lives of regular people living and working around one of Glasgow's main entertainment hubs. Angolan immigrant Melo is busking when he is accosted by a couple of racist thugs. It's a fascinating encounter, particularly due to the admirable way Melo manages to maintain his cool in the face of aggression. It's odd that this encounter would occur on camera, but I guess now that everyone is constantly filming everything, and the equipment needed to shoot a TV show is getting smaller and less obtrusive, the thugs probably didn't think too much about it.

Hotel. Motel. Holiday Inn.
"Say what?"

According to my African peeps, this is a pretty realistic depiction of what would happen if they were in this situation.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2013 - the year in music

I have complained a lot over the years to anyone who would listen that popular music is getting worse. And in some ways that is justified. Hip-hop has been only intermittently interesting since the mid-90s, while alternative rock hasn't been much good for about 10 years. But the pop music in the charts seems to be actually getting a bit better. Oh, there's still some utter dross out there, exemplified by Pitbull's continued appearance on the charts, or RedFoo's execrable Let's Get Ridiculous. But I've just looked over the year-end charts of the biggest hits in the US and Australia, and most of it is not terrible. Some of it is actually pretty good, and some of it is actually really good. I mean, I don't really ever want to hear Katy Perry's Roar or Miley Cyrus' We Can't Stop ever again, but to give them their due, they are pretty well-constructed pieces of pop music.
If we view music in terms of the mainstream and the alternative or underground streams, there is sometimes a huge disconnect between the "good" music being made on the margins to some critical acclaim but little commercial success, and the trashiness of commercial pop. Every serious music fan knows of countless brilliant artists who barely register a blip on the mainstream's radar, while the likes of the Vengaboys and Nickleback rake it in. (Consider that Ke$ha has apparently sold 55 million records in less than 5 years, while Nas' Illmatic album, which pretty much everyone agrees is the greatest hip-hop album every released, took 7 years to scrape together a million copies sold.) Going back a few years, I couldn't listen to commercial radio or music video channels without being assailed be horrible cheesiness and music that has clearly been made to expressly appeal to horny stupid teenagers.

But yeah, something was a bit different this past year. There was a lot of music around that both mainstream and underground could get down to. Maybe it's that mainstream hitmakers started trying harder to make good music, maybe the people who would have been marginalised have been welcomed into the mainstream. Maybe mainstream audiences are sick of dross and are ready to welcome some better music. Or maybe my whole theory is bullshit and it's just that I've become too accustomed to bad commercial pop that I'm no longer disgusted by it.
But to me, the new mood in music is exemplified by songs like Icona Pop's riotous I Don't Care or Sky Ferreira's You're Not the One, two extremely sugary pop hits yet which have enough spike to them to have a non-mainstream appeal. Lorde, the teenager from New Zealand whose songs are a smarter take on the teenage experience, also straddled that line.

I can see it in the realm of popular electronic dance music, where the meathead-house of David Guetta seems to have gone out of fashion, replaced by the slightly classier likes of Avicii and Calvin Harris, while acts like Disclosure and Rudimental can create hits while still doing interesting things in the realm of UK garage and drum n' bass. Daft Punk renewed our interest in the classier side of the disco era.

2013 was also the year of Pharrell. I noticed last year that Pharrell Williams' career had gone quiet since being anywhere and everywhere in the early noughties. But the producer/vocalist roared back in a huge way in 2013, being involved in three of the year's biggest hits. He helmed Robin Thicke's unavoidable Blurred Lines, sang on Daft Punk's Get Lucky, and shone as a solo artist on Happy, which to me is probably the best song of the year. It's fun without being dumb, doesn't dive too deep into the well of cheesiness, and has a video that perfectly captures its vibe of carefree dance and celebration.