Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on April 27th, 2010

I don’t usually use this space to advertise things I’m doing, mostly since I tend not to do things that I think deserve attention. But since this project is closely related to some recent posts on this site, and since, well, this is my site, I think I can tease it here:

The reveal from Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on Vimeo.

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on April 13th, 2010

Today the news reported that the Vilnius municipal government, under pressure from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is renaming K. Sirvydo gatvė after Lech Kaczyński, who now everyone knows perished over the weekend in a surprising plane crash outside of Smolensk on the way to a memorial service of the Polish officers who were killed in Katyn Forest in 1940.

At the same time, Kaczyński has been front-page news here in France since the accident, too, and, well, frankly, I simply don’t get it. The death of a national leader is always news, of course, but it feels like the tragic accident has been rather over-mourned. Perhaps this is in relation to the pretext of the trip, the aforementioned murder of Polish officers attributed (despite a lack of clear evidence) to NKVD officers. Tragedy on top of tragedy, like Air Force One plunging into the English Channel on the way to a V-Day commemoration.

But I wonder if part of the mourning is not attached to what Kaczyński, as a right-wing nationalist president who was both a Euroskeptic and anti-Russian, inhabited a sort of political ground that is very appealing both to Americans in general (passively anti-Russian and Euroskeptical). As a result, Kaczyński’s politics, on issues like lustration, despite the problems regarding Polish minority rights in Lithuania, resonated with the conservative Lithuanian crowd.

Furthermore, considering Katyn’s role as “proof” of the horrific equivalence of Soviet violence with Nazi violence, the mess further highlights the current tugging over official equivalence of all forms of “totalitarianism,” a move I’ve been pushing against for years now, most recently in terms of efforts to change the meaning of the word “genocide.”

But all the same, this move to change the name of K. Sirvydo gatvė feels rushed in some fundamental way. Alta reports that usually bodies have to be well cold in the ground before the names attached to them get attached to streets. Furthermore, the goodwill engendered among the Polish minority by naming the street after Kaczyński might be tempered somewhat as “Kaczyński” becomes rendered as “Kačinskis” or whatever. So the move gets seen as part of the endless game of trying to outmaneuver the Russians, holding them accountable for what happened at Katyn (in both 1940 and 2010, if only suggestively), and showing permanent support for the dead president’s efforts to destabilize the Russian sphere of influence.

So on the same day that I read about protests in France over naming a square after Joseph Ben-Gurion, a divisive nationalist himself, I read about the (personally) more troubling move over in Vilnius. Let’s slow things down a bit and get some perspective back, ok?

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 18th, 2010

Jurgis Rudkus, conquering hero. (click to enlarge)

As the European Broadcast Union determines whether “Eastern European Funk,” in suggesting inequality between eastern and western Europeans, suffers from having political content, Lietuvos Rytas yesterday published an article by Andrius Užkalnis that argues a similar point of inequality, but from the entirely opposite direction.

Užkalnis, the most famous Lithuanian living in England now that John Gielgud is dead, takes as the occasion for his perplexing piece the news in England that Forza, a major meat supplier for supermarket chain Asda, recently looked to hire workers but insisted that the workers be fluent in Polish. At first, I imagined (despite the headline of the piece) that I was about to read some tales of some serious Jungle-style exploitation of foreign workers in the meat packing industry. I was wrong to expect that. Why is it, Užkalnis asks instead, that Lithuanians (and Poles) manage to always find work in the UK, while the English complain about unemployment?

The English, Užkalnis asserts, citing anecdotal evidence gleaned through a few pints at a hoteliers’ convention, are more inclined to hire foreigners than local English. They prefer the Eastern European job ethic, they admit behind closed doors, in comparison to the English one, ravaged by three generations of government-assisted sloth. Užkalnis even defines a “congenitally unemployed” Englishman who, having never seen anyone around him work a steady job, has no clue how to behave at work, himself. ((It’s interesting, of course, that the “congenitally unemployable” class of person was thought to exist in the Soviet Union. By eradicating the free market and private enterprise, our anti-communist indoctrination explained, the USSR had generated generations of permanently crippled workers with no initiative or drive, eager to wait for their government handouts and no more. How the Lithuanians and Poles got so lucky to escape this Lamarckian spiral while the English could not is a bit beyond me.))

In any case, Užkalnis ups the ante for his piece, indicting Western Europe as a whole, lulled into such decadent laziness by the hardworking Americans who funded the Marshall Plan that it can’t even build up the energy to procreate. I’ve heard many explanations for ZPG in my day, but sloth was never one of them. Finally–and you knew where this was going as soon as I used the words “decadent” and “sloth”–he compares Western Europe to Rome. “We Eastern Europeans are the new barbarians,” Užkalnis proclaims, “armed not with weapons, but with uninsured autos and close-cropped hair.” He concludes by asking his readers to be proud of their position in this storming of the gates.

Considering the British history of waves of people who came from across the water, conquered the locals, then stayed and integrated/inflicted their culture with/upon what was already on the ground, there’s something to be said here.

But the reliance on anecdotal evidence and essentializing moves (both those made by Užkalnis himself and recreated uncritically when asserted by others) notwithstanding, there’s one short paragraph over halfway through the Lietuvos Rytas article that troubles me quite a bit. It is, unfortunately, the fulcrum of the argument:

Dar kartą pabrėšiu: užsieniečius čia samdo ne todėl, kad jie pigiau kainuoja. Jiems dažniausiai moka tiek pat, kiek ir vietiniams. Bet vietiniai nebetinka.

I’ll underscore this again [presumably from other articles]: foreigners are not hired [in England] because they are paid less. Most of the time, they earn as much as the locals do. But the locals are no longer a good fit.

Now, I have never been involved in hiring decisions (thank god). Nor have I ever lived in England (thank god). But this sentence goes against everything I have ever heard about migrant labor, either in Europe or in the US. No one would ever make the claim in the US that migrants get the jobs “because they work harder.” People would not even assert that in private. The whole point of migrant labor is that one can pay less for it, both in terms of the workers’ take-home and, often, in terms of tax responsiblity to the government.

Furthermore, the migrant labor population has a reputation for docility: the unskilled nature of the work that highlights the precarity of employment, combined with fear of deportation (which is not applicable in this case, necessarily), further enhanced by ignorance of workers’ rights, topped by issues of communication make an intensely potent cocktail of straight-up old-timey exploitation. In fact, even if it’s empirically demonstrable that Poles make better meat-packers than the English, one can’t dismiss the role of the precarity of the Poles’ position in England in incentivizing the worker. Consider, again, the example from The Jungle, where paranoia over termination causes workers to quite literally work themselves to death. ((Despite the efforts by Užkalnis to bring into his “barbarians at the gate” fold Lithuanian professionals as well as unskilled laborers, I somehow suspect that as compensation grows, disparities in ethic begin to disappear. It’s notable that Užkalnis includes not a single white-collar gig in his tales of exasperation with lazy English.))

Sure, sure. England in 2010 is not the US in 1906. Or, well, even the US in 2010, with its own acute migrant labor issues. And, after all, I already admitted above to not being on the ground regarding English employment. But though Užkalnis draws heavily from the Daily Mail article about the situation at Forza, he completely ignores much of the first quarter of journalist Nick Craven’s piece.

Before his article degenerates into the crypto-xenophobia that one expects in a conservative rag like the Daily Mail, Craven makes reference to a recent report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK on, wait for it, “mistreatment and exploitation of migrant and agency workers” in, wait for it, the meat and poultry industry. I won’t even quote the press release on the report, since Craven makes the point clearly in his own article:

But Forza – a major supplier of Asda supermarkets – was last night accused of anti-British discrimination because of the adverts, which came after an official report detailed how unscrupulous employers prefer to hire migrants because they are cheap and less inclined to answer back…

Forza’s advertisement came as the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report condemned the ‘mistreatment and exploitation’ of foreign workers, who are often too afraid to raise concerns for fear of being sacked.

The commission said it uncovered ‘widespread evidence’ of physical and verbal abuse and lack of proper health and safety protection, while workers often have little knowledge of their rights.

It is also reported that British workers had spoken of difficulty in registering with employment agencies that supply mainly East European workers.

Netikėk lengvu uždarbiu užsienyje.

This report, which sounds like it describes 1906 Chicago after all, goes completely unremarked in Užkalnis’s retelling of the tale for the Lithuanian audience of Lietuvos Rytas. Instead, again, “[užsieniečiams] dažniausiai moka tiek pat, kiek ir vietiniams.” I don’t get it.

Certainly, there’s a middle ground to be struck between “streets paved of gold” and “Tave parduos kaip lėlę.” but the tack Užkalnis takes, even if true in general, is specifically not true in the particular case that gives cause to his writing the article in the first place: why would Forza want to hire only Poles? The government says it’s because they can be easily exploited. Užkalnis, on the other hand, suggests it’s because English make such terrible workers that perhaps Forza has just had it with their uselessness. I know whom I trust here, bestseller or no.

In “Eastern European Funk,” Jurgis Didžiulis makes a case for taking a perverse (in the many senses of the word) pride in the role of exploited. It’s a bit bitter, a bit vengeful, but it’s also mixed with enough sugar and smile to give the situation the complex texture that it demands. In his piece for Lietuvos Rytas, however, Užkalnis has managed to flatten this texture in a bewildering way.

And so while the larger, demographic thrust of the article I see with no difficulty (and I buy it, in much the same way that I respond with a big “so?” when Lithuanians complain to me about Ukranians getting “all the jobs” in Lithuania), I can’t imagine the meat-packing industry ever creating a lemonade quite as sweet as the one Užkalnis is peddling.

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, to Lithchat]

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 10th, 2010

Well, the wheels seem to be in motion. The European Broadcast Union, the people behind Eurovision, is “investigating” the lyrical content of Lithuania’s entry to the song contest, InCulto’s “Eastern European Funk,” to see if it’s “political” in nature. Though I’m certain that my 3000-word meandering on the political content of the song over the weekend in no way tipped off the EBU, I’m still sad that they’re going through this bit of kabuki theater.

By Monday, the head of the Lithuanian delegation, Andrius Giržadas, had already responded to letters that complained about the political content by explaining that the response could be generated by the song’s being a deviation from the usual love ballads that make up most Eurovision fare. This is inarguable, and it is also much to InCulto’s (and the Lithuanian televoting population’s) credit to have still had the song reach this level. Giržadas further argues that the lyrics don’t denigrate any specific group and reference historical facts that are commonly discussed in the European Union. Finally, he speculates that the whole thing is little more than a possible prank.

But what the EBU fails to realize is that their own show is a political undertaking–the way the competition is set up reinforces the very economic issues brought up by InCulto’s song, as the “Big Four” (Germany, UK, France, and Spain) have bought their way straight into the finals each year, avoiding the shame of having to pass the hat for televotes twice in one week. ((PIGSy Spain is, of course, in this case an outlier, but, as Almodóvar showed in a brilliant parodic TV commercial embedded in ¡Átame!, the Spanish will always find the money for aesthetic pleasure now and put off saving for later.))

Furthermore, the contest relies on the structure of the European nation-state to provide it with competitors. I don’t know what the history is of national minorities having their voices heard at Eurovision, but the deck is, to be polite, stacked heavily against them. It encourages national unity (in the name of a fantasy of European unity) which doesn’t feel political only since it has been so normativized. So trying to decide what, lyrically, counts as “political” is a rather useless exercise.

The letter Giržadas received referred specifically to the lines about having “survived the Reds and two world wars” and about how “we’re” not “equal” despite both being in the “EU.” The first line is ridiculous, referring to a historical fact, and I like the S/M tones it takes on in the song as a whole, as I explained over the weekend. If that line is grounds for disqualification, then Abba should have their award rescinded for “Waterloo.” The second line is also obviously a fact, depending on how one measures equality. If the EBU insists on some kind of fuzzy “we’re all just people, man” sense of equality, then the whole contest is a sham, since some people (French performers, who skip the semis) are clearly more equal than others.

On the other hand, maybe a future Eurovision sung entirely in Vonlenska might not be such a bad idea. Then we get to the politics of music itself, divorced of lyrical content. Oh boy…

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, to Lithchat.]

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 7th, 2010

Because of the victory in Eurovision 2008 by the Timbaland-produced “Believe” (video of Dima Bilan’s semi-final performance, featuring ice skating by Evgenij Pljushchenko), the 2009 edition of the European Song Contest was hosted by Russia (the victor each year hosts the following year’s competition). Georgia, who had, of course, recently fought a brief war with Russia, submitted as their candidate song Stephane & 3G’s “We Don’t Wanna Put In,” provided, here, with lyrics:

Derivative disco, sure, with a still not entirely uncatchy groove. Yet the chorus of the song, “We don’t wanna put in / The negative move / Is killing the groove / I’m a-tryin’ to shoot in / Some disco tonight,” fell afoul of the Eurovision officials. See, Eurovision is perhaps more regulated than any enterprise in the world. In fact, over half of the Treaty of Lisbon is devoted to regulations regarding song entries into Eurovision. Some regulations are very well known: songs can’t be longer than three minutes (which makes writing about Eurovision very easy). Others come up in weird cases, like with LT United’s 2006 entry, where they, apparently inappropriately, used the word “Eurovision” in their song. ((I can’t find references to this situation, but I recall reading in 2006 that LT United was going to not be allowed to use the word “Eurovision” in their performance. They did, of course.))

Stephane & 3G’s transgression, however, was to ignore the Eurovision rule regarding “No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature.” They refused to change the lyrics of the chorus, which were interpreted as anti-Putin, so the song was disqualified, and Georgia refused to send an alternate song. Disco continues to scandalize into the 21st Century! Of course, the politico-historical background of the 1974 winners was apparently more subtle than that of the Georgians.

Fill our heart with your national desire.

The desire to present an aesthetic without political commitments, pace Jameson, emerges, I suspect, out of the unifying desire of the paradox of the Eurovision project itself. Its current logo itself presents this paradox: it’s a stylized rendering of the name with a large heart taking the place of the “v.” But this heart is then filled in with the flag of whatever nation is competing or hosting at the time, suggesting a sort of innate, interior quality to national feeling that is embedded in each performer’s heart. So, since we all have an innate national feeling, a property claim on a slice of the Volksgeist, the theory goes, we’re all united in being different, a sort of neoliberal justification for the competition itself. And for those whose flags never get to be represented at Eurovision? Sorry.

In fact, Eurovision becomes a sort of neoliberal competition sans pareil, based as it is on the ideas of competition, on a fundamental human equality expressed in pluralism. Into the aesthetic European marketplace, unfettered by varying tariff schedules or import regulations, each song stands an equal chance of winning. Well, an equal chance except of course, for the “Big Four,” who bought their way out of having to compete at the semi-final level. But neoliberalism’s genius is, of course, its willingness to be ideologically inconsistent (here undemocratic) when money is at stake.

Next, each commodity is graded in part by the demos (televoting) and by expert bureaucrats (the national juries, which presumably can appreciate the quality of Eurovision better than the demos). We have the fantasy of democracy and equality, yet also the obscured structure of support (aesthetic firewalls, buying your way to the finals) to maintain a level of order, so capital is not put at too great a risk.

LT United’s entry in 2006 played up (unconsciously, I suspect) this neoliberal fantasy, and I bought in. The main reason I preferred it to InCulto’s beloved runner-up, “Welcome (to Lithuania)” was because of two lines Vee sings midway through the song that illustrate its commitment to pluralistic neoliberalism: “De Vilnius city à Paris” and “Chantons la même chanson.” So first we have the unifying move of the band itself, which took its name from the football tradition, imagining itself as a “national selection”–the best the nation had to offer and send to international competitions, just like in the World Cup. Lithuania is united behind the song “We Are the Winners.” But then lyrically, the song encourages a geographical and performative unity. The locus of winners stretches from Vilnius to Paris, and it involves everyone singing the song (a list that would include the actual winners that year, Lordi, and Robbie Williams). If this seems a bit confusing, it’s because it’s paradoxical: competition brings us together, and out of choosing a winner, we will be united. This ironic skimming between was missed by the throaty audience in Athens, eager to boo LT United as they made their way to a Lithuania-best 6th place performance. We can all sing the song, the message was, but we’re still LT United, and there can still be only one set of winners in this marketplace. But as long as no one’s feelings are hurt…

“Welcome (to Lithuania),” on the other hand, I found to be exceptionalist (and this conclusion was greatly influenced by the aesthetic moves made by PetPunk in their nevertheless enjoyable video for the song). So it’s interesting that InCulto has moved beyond the borders of Lithuania with their new song, “Eastern European Funk,” Lithuania’s representative in the 2010 edition of the Eurovision contest. First, here’s the televised final performance, so the reader can both see the Eurovision logo in action as well as get an aural appreciation of the lyrical content of the song:

Second is a version from much earlier this year, performed in studio (minus Auris on bass, who is in the other room) for RadioCentras. Notable in this performance is how the radio personality Vytenis manages to mess up the title of the song, uncertain if it’s “punk” or “funk.” Though I doubt he had Dr. Green’s “East Europe Ska” on the mind, as I’ll show later, InCulto owes more, generically, to punk tradition in this song than funk:

These two versions can then be compared against the two versions (though three clips) I posted earlier this week.

So first, let’s get the funk out of the way (I’ve had friends ask what, precisely, is “funky” about this song). Unlike “jazz,” whose very etymology is euphemistically tied to sex, “funk”‘s euphemistic power to obscure sex is retrofitted. Taking a classic lyric like “Make my funk the P-funk / I wants to get funked up,” it’s taking advantage of uncertainty over the etymology of the term “funk,” including using its phonetic proximity to “fuck.” Musically, funk is supposed to lope around, vamping with a driving bass on just a chord or two, giving an undulating motion, and, well, this song doesn’t really do that. But what it cedes musically, it reclaims lyrically, despite a certain amount of variance in the lyrics over the course of the song’s evolution in the YouTube clips online. ((When referring to lyrics, I’m referring to the RadioCentras version, which is new and clear. The same lyrics are used in the Maxima performance, and there isn’t significant deviation from the televised performance from the other day.)) The first verse sexualizes the bloody past of Eastern Europe during the 20th Century. “We’ve had it pretty tough / But that’s ok, we like it rough” sings Didžiulis, turning “Survived the Reds and two world wars” from a defiant move of political strength to a 70-year tantric orgy enjoyed by the masochists of Eastern Europe. Yet there’s an implicit threat in the first verse, too, as Didžiulis sings that “We’ll settle the score,” presumably not with the previous oppressors, but with those who refuse to “give us a chance.”

The second verse, then, is the interesting one, and it’s the one that serves as a (revolutionary) critique of neoliberalism and of the very structure of contemporary Europe and Eurovision. Didžiulis pits Eastern Europe and its suffering against the relative material success of the West, arguing that there are neoliberal fictions of equality codified by the EU, but these fictions filter down to the ground level only as shadows of their idealized selves, their corners cut by concessions to capital. The verse is worth quoting in full, with my potential errors in transcription asserted beforehand:

Yes sir, we are legal, we are
But we're not as legal as you
No sir, we're not equal
Though we're both from the EU
We build your home, we wash your dishes
Keep your hands all squeaky clean
Someday you'll come to realize
Eastern Europe's in your genes/jeans!

Being unified in the EU has not granted full equality, in fact, and, in making moving as an undocumented worker even easier, it has fostered, in its own neoliberal way, even more massive income inequality. The release of travel restrictions to the West has created a gigantic exodus of Lithuanians from Lithuania (along with other Eastern Europeans from their homes), such that, for example, when I was walking down a street in London and saw a bunch of men building a home, I would have been more startled if they had not been speaking Lithuanian.

But the ascendance of the Eastern European into the underclass of Western Europe (thereby competing with the underclass from Asia and Africa in urban environments like Paris) comes despite the fact that Eastern Europe has gotten the “democracy” and “freedom” that it “wanted.” It gets to participate in Eurovision now with its nationalist, not communist, flags inside the little Euro♡ision. You are, after all, now equal, no? Oh wait, you wanted something resembling economic equality as well? Clearly you’re not actually ready to join us, let’s have you run up some debt with the IMF first.

The point here is that the second verse starts skating toward lyrics “of a political or similar nature.” Not that I think the song should be disqualified: it’s to its benefit that it carries a revolutionary subtext, rising to its climax, as it were, in the closing line, with an implicit threat of occluded miscegenation. Perhaps the homebuilder or dishwasher is your true, biological father or mother, masked and obscured to prevent class shame. Or perhaps the dishwasher has sabotaged your dishes, leaving his own genetic material on the plate in quiet revolt against your terrible wages. This is, of course, the revenge for the sextourism critiqued in “Welcome.” Further, read as “jeans,” the last line is a reminder of the role of the Eastern European in the process of production even in Western Europe, suggesting that it’s probably not a good idea to keep stomping on the underclass.

This revolutionary current, then, explains how I see the generic ancestry of InCulto’s entry not in the funk ethos of sexual expression, but in the punk ethos of (sexual) revolution, despite the eagerness to pigeonhole InCulto into a nationalist revolutionary sentiment. For the latter, take a song like “Sally,” by Gogol Bordello, a band with certain aesthetic affinities with InCulto:

There is a similar thread of defiance (“But by the accident of some kind divine dispensation /
I ended up being walking United Nation / And I survived even fucking radiation”–though messed up in the live version above, these are the lyrics of the album recording) as with the “we like it rough,” but the force of “Sally” comes before, in the narrative of cultural revolution. “Gypsies” come by and drop “something,” and right there, the revolution begins.

But it’s uncertain to me what, precisely, Hütz has in mind with this cultural revolution, which is how Didžiulis manages to move past it. Hütz’s lack of clarity over revolution, in fact, is a persistent problem for me with Gogol Bordello, since, unlike InCulto’s ironic twisting of the pluralist screw, Gogol Bordello seems to be eager to relish it. ((Someday I’ll write my review of InCulto’s much maligned second album and start a process of recuperation of it as a brilliant, persistent critique of the nationalist project informing about 95% of contemporary Lithuanian political life.)) “They always were afraid that I was a schizophrenic,” Hütz sings, continuing with “They always were afraid что я родину продал” (that I sold out the nation). In reality, though, “я был просто маленький медведик / Сёл на велосипедик и всё на хуй проебал”(I was simply a little bearcub / Seated on a little bike and fucking losing everything). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work through these lines. ((This time spent is in part since I have little confidence in my translation of “всё на хуй проебал,” but advanced cursing isn’t part of the third-year Russian syllabus.)) What they seem to encourage is a continued presence of a national spirit. The cultural revolution, or the performance, did not ruin the national identity, and the nation was not sold out. What, then, is the actual result of the revolution called for here? ((A song like their “Immigrant Punk” is even more frustratingly illegible as far as an actual political call to action. It seems to get its lyrical energy simply out of celebrating difference. Zzzzz.))

The nationalized cultural revolutions Gogol Bordello imagines play right into the neoliberal playbook. The band fancies itself as subversive, “smuggling” ethnic musical tropes into the US like Gogol “smuggled” Ukrainian culture into Russian culture. But the result is just an enhanced cultural particularization. In making such a big deal of its multiethnic composition, Gogol Bordello banishes itself to its own ghetto. ((Trimmed from this piece is an extended discussion of the fiction of cultural particularization as highlighted in Joann Sfar’s fantastic series Klezmer. I did go through the effort of uploading the images I was going to use as evidence, which you can view here.))

Didžiulis, on the other hand, with his threats of miscegenation, shows that the cultural revolution will come as interior sensibilities of national identity become illegible, replaced, instead, with models of practice and performance–expressivities of identity that by definition have a material component. ((Another way to see how “Eastern Europe is in your genes/jeans” is a Lamarckian way: take those jeans to the dance floor, dance to the Eastern European funk, and find that the practice of your dancing jeans embeds itself in your genes.)) In other words, the fantasy of equality through pluralism (with its resonances with “separate but equal” in the US) is now challenged on the stage in Oslo, during Eurovision, perhaps the grandest stage for perpetuating that very fantasy. Elsewhere Didžiulis has commented on the kitsch nature of Eurovision, but considering kitsch’s complicated relationship to national expression, it does not unhinge the subversion of the lyrical content of the song.

LT United promised a certain kind of imagined unity in all voting for the winners and in singing their song from Vilnius to Paris, but it’s ephemeral; it’s the cover for increasing economic destruction. “Eastern European Funk,” to me, calls for for a different kind of European Unity.

So that all said, what are the song’s chances in Oslo? One of the great moves by writing a song about Eastern Europe as a whole is that it might shake up the blocs that tend to vote for each other in Eurovision. The Baltic states tend to vote with the Scandinavians, leaving the Slavs to split themselves further into two groups, the Western-European Slavic axis and the South Slavic axis. The political claims Didžiulis makes, in English, the master’s language, are understood as well in Russia as in Poland as in Bulgaria as in Ukraine as in Bosnia (whose population has felt the thumb of democracy in their eye in denying them the right to build minarets in Switzerland). Centuries-old neighborly antagonisms don’t change the fact that everyone in the east is not as legal (or as equal) as those in the west.

I’ve read a few criticisms of the song for being, in its all-male constitution and self-consciously kitschy approach, far too reminiscent (and hence derivative) of the four year old performance by LT United. For me, that comparison makes no sense whatsoever–especially given how each year about 80% of the songs are interchangeable lovesong pop and, thus, derivative of each other, one after the other–but for a person just tuning in to the semi-finals in May, there may indeed be a lot of resonance, which probably goes to InCulto’s detriment. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that we have seen the final version of the band’s stage performance, so they may have some tricks tucked away in their sequined briefs.

Sadly, since I’ll be in the US during the semi-finals and finals, I suspect I won’t be able to vote for InCulto from France, but I still support their bid.

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, footnotes, and embedded video, to Lithchat.]

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 7th, 2010

Alita. (karikatura.lt)

After a meeting at work this week, we had our usual pause to drink some wine. For some reason, we were especially thirsty and quickly bored through our two-bottle ration. Wanting more, we tried to have the ration increased, but, instead, the suggestion was that we raid our own private stocks. I happen to have a private stock of wine at work, and it consists of one bottle of Alita sparkling wine that I brought back from Lithuania in January.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a big fan of Alita. In fact, the bulk of my exposure to it probably came at Kunigaikščių užeiga, once they took their two Soviet sparkling wines, Советское Шампанское and Советское Мускатное off the menu. ((I found a bottle of the Мускатное this week for sale for 9€ at the Russian deli Гастрономь, about a kilometer’s walk from where I live. I was shocked to find out that it is “produced and bottled” in Latvia, but I guess the brand has been distributed around the former USSR. I’m pretty certain that previous versions of the stuff I drank were bottled in Ukraine. Now that I know its Latvian provenance, I’m very scared to see how it is.)) The move to champagne mid-way through the meal was a well-exercised pro move, but once Alita became the only show in town, the interest faded away.

In either case, we were down to just the bottle of Alita, and so out it came. I had given the wine about a 5% chance of being legitimately liked, a 15% chance of being politely liked, and an 80% chance of being disliked to various degrees. I was about right.

One taster asked the crowd what the antimalarial medicine is that’s sprayed, since that’s what Alita smelled like. Another remarked that now one knew the flavor of anti-freeze. Several offered to pour their portions back into my cup after I explained that I was not going to throw the contents out (in general, the room was very anti-finishing the bottle). But the best was the progression taken by one taster:

Smelling the bouquet: “Odd, it smells of apples.”

Sipping: “OK.”

Aftertaste: “Oh, this is not good.”

Then: “This is truly not good” (C’est vraiment pas bien).

A half-minute later: “C’est dégueulasse!”

And that was that. The anti-malarial anti-freeze cupful of filthy ickiness was ostracized, and the rest of the crowd managed to find two more bottles to continue the evening’s chatter.

[Originally posted, with proper formatting, to Lithchat.]

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 5th, 2010

I first heard (and wrote) about inCulto in the context of their song “Welcome (to Lithuania),” which was a candidate song to represent Lithuania at Eurovision in 2006. The song lost at the end to LT United’s “We Are the Winners,” which made lots of people on the west side of the Atlantic rather sad. At the time, I argued that while inCulto’s entry might have been a better song qua song, it wasn’t as good an entry for Eurovision, where songs are supposed to have universal appeal, catering to a fantasy of a Europe much larger than the EU, united by song.

So I’m happy that inCulto’s second attempt, the broader appeal song “Eastern European Funk,” was selected last night to represent Lithuania at Eurovision. It’s an infectious song, and it might even match or beat LT United’s best-ever ranking in 2006. (I know I will be voting for it from France.) In the two clips I provide below, one can hear the song as performed live and see an element of the choregraphy that inCulto was to use in their performance. For those expecting a more lavishly produced song with thicker instrumentation, don’t forget the Eurovision format, which encourages interesting choreography and band interaction (the event, after all, is televised!).

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on February 25th, 2010

When Lithuania (re-)declared independence on 11 March 1990, I was not yet even in high school. I often wished I was about eight years older, so that I might somehow throw myself into the mix out there, in the wild edge-of-reality process of nation building. ((A cousin of mine, seven years my senior, did send himself out to Vilnius to work as a liaison between the Western press and the Lithuanian politicians. I haven’t kept in touch, but LinkedIn suggests he’s now a EUreaucrat  in Belgium.)) I’d have, you know, adventures and stuff.

If I were born eight years earlier, my relationship with what would have been for the first 22 years of my life the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania would have been fundamentally different. Given my interest in the Russian language and in Eastern Europe in general during the 1980s, it’s entirely possible that I would have been some kind of reactionary nationalist Lithuanian dissident in some university’s Slavic Languages department, a path already visible in my mid-late ’80s dream of working for a CIA, a dream that took more time than expected to come true. ((Another cousin, also about eight years my senior followed this sort of path down Slavic languages, though I don’t know how his dissidence ended up. Nor am I implying that he worked for the CIA.)) Instead, I ended up becoming an English major intensely skeptical of nationalism and projects fueled by calls to identity. I hate arguments about the Lithuanian Diaspora that perversely blame independence for a slackening of interest in Lithuanian affairs, but I cannot guarantee that I would not have been more interested in devoting myself to the cause had the cause still been there during my young adulthood. ((One anecdotal effect of this is that I tend to find that my friends who are slightly older than I have more reactionary feelings toward Lithuania than my friends who are slightly younger, until one reaches the new generation of crypto-fascists whose parents were the young, ardent agitators of the late-’70s and ’80s.))

But another risk, had I been about 22 when the Soviet Union crumbled, that I would have run might have led me down the same path as Mark Allen and Matt Taibbi, who co-edited the eXile, an infamous English-language newspaper covering the chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia, covered in a new article in Vanity Fair by James Verini. ((I went to high school with James.)) In the article, Verini tracks the hijinks of the paper itself, along with its consequences and effects on both editors, who have since gone on to establish themselves Stateside. Taibbi especially has tried to grow into the space left by Hunter S. Thompson at Rolling Stone, filing by now very well known hate-filled screeds against what HST would’ve called “the greedheads” on Wall St. and in DC.

The article shows the (to me) simultaneously sickening and alluring effect of the two American ковбоя on the Moscow streets. Reading of their exploits, I feel the shame of recognition, comparing to my friends’ and my exploiting Vilnius often in similar ways. There might not be prostitutes and heroin in my contemporary nuotykiai, but I do get the sense that if I had been a journalist in Lithuania back then, my stories would have been a bit different–maybe even like what was going on in Moscow. For having missed those opportunities, I’m both sad and glad, bizarrely, to have missed out on that bottomless pit of temptation.

I’m not quite so cynical to suspect that the two men (Taibbi mostly, from the tone of the article) used their time in Moscow to build up a reputation for cred once it was time to go mainstream; every journalist has to log the hours out in the sticks before ending up at the Times, after all. But in comparison to the cold retelling of the Jeffrey Sachs/Yeltsin-era in Naomi Klein’s polemic The Shock Doctrine, Verini also captures the conflict of temptation alluded to in the previous paragraph. I’m not sure what to make of Ames’s belief that the only way to truly make apparent the terrible situation of the sex trade in Russia was to sleep with the women he profiled (and, subsequently, take their pimps’ money in the form of advertising), but it’s intriguing that they had some sort of conscience about their work, making the accusation of “frat boy” not sound quite correct.

Either way, the article’s worth a read, and though I sometimes wish I were born eight years earlier, I never, ever, wish that I were born eight years later, on the cusp of the Special Snowflake generation. Thanks, but no thanks.

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on February 20th, 2010

Flying to Kaunas

I was pretty excited when over the fall airBaltic announced non-stop flights from VNO to CDG. They’ve had all sorts of sales, and I’ve already flown the route three times. The schedule seems to be settling down a bit (my flight into VNO landed at the hilarious useless time of 23:00), and they are adding flights. Twice when I’ve flown, the plane was full, and it was nearly full the last time I flew.

Yet now Ryanair has announced their own non-stop from Paris to Kaunas, a city only 100km from Vilnius (the airport is actually even closer). Now while airBaltic is a low-cost airline, they are not precisely a “budget” airline, like Ryanair is. So the idea of getting to Lithuania from Paris for even less than what airBaltic charges was instantly appealing, especially when I clicked over to their site and saw they were charging about 55€ round trip, while I spent about 110€ on my last round-trip on airBaltic.

But though this post seems particularly tailored to the Paris-Vilnius crowd, it does apply to a lot budget airlines when comparing costs, because that 110 and 55 above become rather different numbers when we take into consideration other effects.

First, let’s make sure we’re playing with the same fire here. I’ve priced out a trip to Lithuania in May (so that Ryanair is already flying). I’ve chosen to fly out on May 6 and return on May 11. I chose May 6 for obvious personal reasons, but Ryanair won’t let me fly on that day, which means I have to either miss being in LT on the 6th or spend an extra night out there (and work extra hard to catch up on lost time at work). On the other hand, Ryanair will send me home on Monday, making me miss less work on the back end.

Ticket: airBaltic: 118,63€ = (10€ + 18€ + taxes); Ryanair: 33,98€ = (11,99€ + 11,99€ + 0*taxes)

Note that this Ryanair ticket claims no taxes, which, well, frankly, I don’t believe. How is it possible that the airBaltic flight charges taxes, but the Ryanair flight doesn’t? So I’m a little skeptical about the math here.

The next step, baggage, I’ll skip. Both companies will beat you senseless on baggage charges. In fact, airBaltic seems to have an 8kg limit on hand luggage, which is, once you get down to it, not a lot at all. Fear over tipping that limit had me leave my roller-bag at home, not wanting to pay for the metal frame and wheels and the like.

Then the next step, though, is a bit of a killer. Ryanair, you see, flies not to Vilnius, but to KUN. Furthermore, it doesn’t fly from CDG, but, rather, from BVA. Beauvais-Tillé airport is, incidentally, 85km from Paris, so about 10km closer to Paris than Kaunas airport is to Vilnius. This kind of distance in land travel obviously has a price. There is a shuttle running from the edge of Paris to the airport 3:15 before each flight. It costs 14€ one-way. Add in the 1,16€ in a Métro ticket, and you have a round-trip price of 30,32€. Furthermore, getting from Kaunas to Vilnius costs, and those tickets are 11,25€ one-way. They deliver you at Panorama Hotel near the Vilnius train station.

Flying airBaltic involves land transport costs, too, of course. The train ticket is 8,50€ one-way to CDG, and the bus from the airport to downtown Vilnius is ,72€. The cost of the little train from the airport to the main train station (right by the Panorama Hotel) is even a bit less. So that comes out to 18,42€.

Ground transport: airBaltic: 18,42€ (2(,72 + 8,50)); Ryanair: 52,82€ (2(11,25 + 14 + 1,16))

Now the Ryanair ticket savings get a bit more contextualized. The airBaltic price hops up just to 137,05€, but the Ryanair price soars to 86,80€. It’s interesting, in fact, that the ground transport is more than the price of the ticket for Ryanair.

In addition to ground transport costs, all that extra moving around involves opportunity costs, which differ from reader to reader. I typically don’t consider my time as being “worth” anything, but I do value some level of comfort, and I know that I was very glad that, on my last flight back to Paris, I literally stepped into the taxi and was on board the plane only 25 minutes later (the taxi would add about 2,50€ to the cost). That would be impossible if I had to hoof it all the way to Kaunas.

Nevertheless, a 50-some euro difference, even when accounting for the disparity in ground transport, isn’t nothing. That’s about a night out on the town, if one is hanging out at Disco 311. Assuming this 0€ in taxes business is real, we’ll see what I choose to do in the future.

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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on January 8th, 2010
Two potential targets of Lithuanian prosecution.

Two potential targets of Lithuanian prosecution.

One of my favorite movies of 2008 was Edward Zwick’s Defiance. I didn’t particularly like it because of its cinematic qualities—though the color, photography, and performances by the two leads (pictured) were excellent—but, rather, for the way it subverts in its retelling a story familiar to every child of the Lithuanian Diaspora: the fight of the Partizanai against their occupying army.

We grew up hearing about the bravery of the Partizanai, standing up against the [insert adjective here] occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union. They killed communist collaborators, stole from pro-communist farmers, protected crypto-nationalists. Etc. They even have a museum dedicated to them just off Gedimino Prospektas in the center of Vilnius. But instead of calling it the “Partisan Museum,” it is rather called the “Museum of Genocide Victims.”

“Oh,” the unsuspecting tourist might say to herself, “this will be similar to the new addition to the IX Fort Museum in Kaunas, which details the various forms of oppression and occupation suffered in Lithuania over the past 150 years.” Said visitor might even expect a huge exhibition on the Holocaust, seeing as the Holocaust destroyed utterly the vibrant, centuries-old Jewish community of Lithuania.

Said visitor would be in for quite a surprise. Not only is the Holocaust not mentioned in the Genocide Museum, but Jewish suffering during the war is reduced, if memory serves, to nothing more than a body count in parentheses, painted on a wall of reckoning on the way out. ((Darius sent me a link to  Johnathan Steele’s description of his visit: “But as I moved from room to dismal room, I had a growing sense something was missing. Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of the North. What about the Jews? Did their fate not merit remembrance? In a corridor I eventually found a placard with a brief, though telling, mention. It gave estimates for the victims of Lithuania’s Soviet occupation and of the Nazi one as well. The number summarily shot, or who died in prison and during deportation in the Soviet period, reached 74,500. During three years of Nazi rule from June 1941, those killed amounted to 240,000, ‘including about 200,000 Jews’.”)) Yes, the museum asserts, there was a genocide in Lithuania in the twentieth century, but it was a genocide against people of a certain class or a certain ideology. ((It’s not for nothing that the museum often becomes called the “KGB Museum” in English. Somehow calling this space a “Genocide Museum” sounds completely wrong.)) And to fold these things together, the Lithuanian government even changed the definition of genocide to include, as Dovid Katz describes in today’s article for The Guardian, “wrongful deportation, imprisonment or attempts to rid society of a certain class.

Lithuanian suffering under Soviet rule has been twisted into being called a “genocide,” and, next, the Partizanai are raised to be true heroes, giving up their lives to try to stop Soviet genocide.

Glory to the heroic partisans, destroying the fascist rearguard

Glory to the heroic partisans, destroying the fascist rearguard.

Defiance, then, spins this around. “You want to see a genocide in the forests of Lithuania?” it asks. And it delivers. We see the ghetto of Navahrudak (Naugardukas), with Jews arguing about whether to flee or not. Fleeing might mean freedom, or at least a stay of execution. But by fleeing, they condemn those who stay to death. Death here is a technology of true genocide. Following Agamben’s terminology, the Jews are stripped down to bare life, and then left to be exterminated as vermin. ((Agamben, of course, in separating zoë from bios allows space for political exiles and refugees among those stripped to bare life, but it was the technology of the concentration camp, not the forced labor camp, that provided the apogee of the horror of biopolitics.))

“Do you want to see what combat against actual genocide looks like?” it then asks, providing us the three Bielski brothers. Unlike the fleeing city Jews, they are not intellectuals; they are simple shtetl farmers. In other words, they come from the same stock—the valstiečiai or peasantry—that provided the Lithuanians with their nationalists a century earlier. Next, one brother, Zus, even begins to collaborate (and I choose that verb carefully) with local Soviet partisans. These partisants are Soviets risking their own lives behind enemy lines to disrupt Nazi logistical chains and hamper their abilities to engage the actual army at the front. The movie runs into some trouble with the Soviets, desperate not to come out as seeming pro-Soviet, so it stages its own performances of Soviet (and, therefore, immanent Russian) anti-Semitism, which causes Zus to return to his estranged brother and help him lead his Jewish tribe to one more day of freedom.

I’m disinclined to go into greater detail about the movie and its seeming “stick to your own kind and all will be well” moral, but it stands as an artifact of what the Lithuanian ultranationalist right would have you believe is what happened to Lithuanians at the hands of the Soviets. ((Defiance also has out-of-its-mind fascinating linguistic politics. The local farmers are considered Belarusian, and the main language other than English spoken in the movie is Russian. Yet when one of the farmers who hesitatingly helps the Bielskis is found out and murdered, the sign hanging from his neck, “amant żydów,” is in (bad?) Polish. None of this really fits the historical facts, either. So was everything russified for Liev Schreiber, who speaks Russian?)) It fits, of course, that many of the extras were Lithuanians, and that the movie was filmed in Lithuania. It tells, the rightists might suggest, a Lithuanian story. And though there are parallels—ones I willingly drew in the capsule above—they end at a certain point. At that point, Stalin’s deportation to Siberia of the Lithuanian intellectual class and other enemies of the state reaches its limit as a horrific crime for which many thousands suffered. Yet past that terminus, the Nazi train wagons of death continue on into deep Poland, if you will permit the metaphor, passing the line of “deportation of enemies,” and moving toward “extermination of presumed subhumans.” Or, more succinctly, “genocide.”

Several times on this site I’ve returned to an old post, “The Hammer and Sickle is NOT the Swastika,” and I feel prompted by Katz’s article to return to it again. In that article, I laid out Žižek’s largely unassailable position on the matter, complete with his warning of what might happen if the two, rendered as “red” and “brown” by Katz, are considered in equivalence. But Žižek’s warning has been unheard by an increasing number of politicians in the EU, willing to go along with ultranationalist feelings in the Baltic states to insert, here and there, tiny phrases building up a precedent for equivalence.

Yes, both were horrific regimes. Yes, both committed similar crimes. But that does not lead to equivalence (any more than, pace Jonah Goldberg, Hitler’s vegetarianism means that contemporary vegetarians are crypto-fascists).

But the fight for equivalence, as Katz points out, allows the Lithuanian government to continue acting solely as victims, and not as criminals. “Wir waren nicht die Täter! Wir waren die Opfer!” they claim, sounding like a half-blind-to-history Austrian. And as long as retribution has not allowed them to finally shed their opferine capes of self-pity, they will have no interest in taking on their taterine hairshirts of responsibility.

Memorial to those killed outside the IX Fort in Kaunas.

Soviet era memorial to those killed outside the IX Fort in Kaunas.

It is a twisted joke straight out of Russian literature that turns Yitzhak Arad, a partisan, freedom-fighter, and anti-fascist, into a potential war criminal under the eyes of the forever suffering poor little Lithuanian nation, while her own war criminals, who filled the hills outside the IX Fort in Kaunas or the woods of Paneriai with corpses, remain uncharged.

Almost, and this is with a heavy dose of trying to see the best in people, I can see a part of the Lithuanian reluctance as born out of their own reaction to having their own history treated as an exclusively fascist one. It’s notable that the main memorials to the Holocaust in Lithuania were constructed during the Soviet era. ((This also explains the anger over the memorial in Talinn. Russians see it as a memorial to anti-fascism. Estonians see it as a memorial to their oppression at the hands of the Soviets, who considered their partisans crypto-fascists.)) In part this underscores reluctance since then on behalf of the government to add to the total, but I can also imagine the Soviet use (or overuse) of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust to keep Lithuanian national pride at bay. In this reading, being pro-Jewish or pro-Holocaust-reckoning is always read as pro-Soviet.

But that doesn’t change what happened. And paranoia about the potential of pro-Soviets will continue to stunt political development in Lithuania. Bad enough that the political life there is corrupt and full of upward failure. But the spectre of the USSR limits a lot of potential social good, lest efforts toward it seem, much like in the US, “communist.”

Katz uses his space in The Guardian to try to shame the English political establishment into stopping their alliances with the likes of Vytautas Landsbergis or others who pursue (cynically or not) a red-brown equivalence. But I’ll encourage the likely readers of this site, diaspora Lithuanians, to do the same. There is a space for reckoning with the horrors of the Soviet era, but its space does not include these bizarre efforts toward equivalency which, instead, justify racism and anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Sovietism.

Here, perhaps, Žižek’s conclusion is worth repeating:

The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat.

It is a historical fact that Nazism arrived on the scene after Communism. Even the Stalinist version of Communism predates the Reichstagsbrand. In equating brown and red, brown becomes a response, hell, almost a necessary, unavoidable response to red. From there, the mess gets more horrific. The Holocaust becomes a necessary, immanent part of the War against Communism. Is that, actually, what the likes of Landsbergis and other tools of the ultranationalist right in Lithuania wish to proclaim?

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