Feb 27, 2013

Cheerfulness at Shit Jobs

Tim Noah went on a tirade against a place called Pret a Manger the other day:
Pret doesn't merely want its employees to lend their minds and bodies; it wants their souls, too. It will not employ anyone who is "here just for the money." Noting that one Pret worker in London got fired soon after he tried to start a union—the company maintained it was for making homophobic comments—Myerscough suggested the worker's true offense was being unhappy enough to want to start a union, since "Pret workers aren't supposed to be unhappy." The sin commenceth with the thought, not the deed.
He uses what I thought was a bit of an extreme analogy:
Pret keeps its sales clerks in a state of enforced rapture through policies vaguely reminiscent of the old East German Stasi. A "mystery shopper" visits every Pret outlet once a week. If the employee who rings up the sale is appropriately ebullient, then everyone in the shop gets a bonus. If not, nobody does. This system turns peers into enthusiasm cops, further constricting any space for a reserved and private self. And these cops require literal stroking. In other workplaces, touching a co-worker may get you fired, but at Pret you have to worry about not touching co-workers enough. "The first thing I look at," Chief Executive Clive Schlee told The Telegraph last March, "is whether staff are touching each other . . . I can almost predict sales on body language alone.
Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
Fear? Fear that consumers might get better service and that corporations actually try to encourage this? Fear that when you are in service jobs, your boss may keep tabs on how well you interact with customers and colleagues? It’s fascism, I tell you. Or some kind of false consciousness. Apparently, Noah wants service that in no way is encouraged to be cheerful. My advice? Visit France. 
And this service ethic of fake cheeriness began in the US of A. It was one of those things I noticed and loved immediately arriving here, and over the last quarter century saw spread throughout my country of origin. The service culture – which is indeed a kind of performance – makes everything more pleasant to buy, blends consumerism with entertainment and enjoyment.
I'm not exactly sure who to side with here (though I'd lean more towards Sullivan), but my own experience with this sort of thing isn't quite captured by either.

Back in 2009 I worked for several months for minimum wage at a grocery store in Washington Heights. It was a shit job, no question about it. Yet here's my take on that experience:
Practically every minor transaction like groceries is carried out with no more than a grunt in New York. I was obstinately polite and cheerful. (Well, most of the time. Some people were just out to ruin my day, because I was a helpless cashier. I bitched them out in the most recondite language I could summon.) I turned on what little charm I possess—which for some reason is most effective with middle-aged women. Being on Broadway the store served both major Heights ethnic groups, and I befriended folks of all stripes. I carried groceries for Mrs. Finn, a harassed young Orthodox mother draped with bandoliers of children. I found the right brand of Matzahs for Mrs. Berkowitz, a caustic and insistent old lady who had been angrily dismissed by the other cashiers. I talked politics with some of the Jewish men (though not all, there were some real right-wingers that would come through occasionally). For those buying kosher, I always offered to keep the dairy and meat separate. I tried out my rusty Spanish on Mrs. Garcia, an abuela from the East Heights, which quickly improved as most of the other cashiers spoke it as well.
Now, I don't want to dismiss the deeply gendered aspect of this—certainly women have it much worse when it comes to dealing with insistent flirtation or harassment. But I implemented this strategy for a reason—because it was a shit job, letting myself wallow in resentment and bitter commiseration with the other cashiers made things more unpleasant. But when I really made an effort to be cheerful and upbeat with people, in the small way afforded by a few minutes' interaction, it made the experience far more bearable.

In my experience, most people respond positively when you're pleasant and joking with them, in turn lifting my own mood, especially in a grim place like New York. And the converse is true for negativity. For me, it was a choice between whistling through a crap work experience, soul mostly intact each day, or trudging through it and ending each shift pissed and needing a drink. (This could be just me, though I definitely fall on the introvert side when it comes to personality.)

The wrinkle is with the corporate culture, I think. If you have a "happiness policy" implemented by the soulless skull-fuck manager class (Office Space-style) enforced by secret surveillance, then not only is the labor relationship already poisoned with distrust, you probably won't get actually genuine cheerfulness, you'll more often get the kind of forced, repetitive happy affectation that is as transparent as a penis enlargement advert. But if labor and management can come to a mutual, friendly recognition that being reasonably friendly and upbeat can actually make a job better, it ought to work out better for everyone.

I imagine that's a tough needle to thread. (For more, see Peter Frase.)

Feb 25, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Caught this flick the other day. It reminded me very strongly of Fog of War, one of my favorite films of all time. It's probably the most impressive interview "get" I've ever heard of—all six of the former heads of the Israeli intelligence service talk with astonishing bluntness about their careers and the state of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Arab neighbors.

Imagine David Petraeus and his five predecessors talking like Nation columnists and you'll have some idea.

It's a bit slow, especially at first, and also entirely in Hebrew, but incredibly interesting. Very highly recommended.

Feb 23, 2013

The Pistorius Case and Corruption in South Africa

I was talking about this over in the comments at Ta-Nehisi Coates' place, and I thought I should bring it out in full. Coates asked this question:
I'd love here how it is that the prosecutor on a case like this, doesn't know that the lead investigator is facing seven charges of attempted murder.
The answer I have is basically a special case of my Grand Theory of Why South Africa is Such a Fucking Basketcase. In brief: South Africa has a horrible case of corruption. It has this problem because it is for the moment a one-party state with all the associated problems that brings in a brutalized country: a crap education system, rampant cronyist promotion of incompetents, graft, etc. It is a one-party state because the ANC (through the personage of Nelson Mandela) is credited with ending Apartheid, and the largest competitor party is fatally associated with whites. Without real political competition, there is no consequence for corruption.

This is quite similar to what happened all across Africa after the end of colonialism—countries started democratic and toppled into authoritarianism due to weak institutions, lasting damage from colonialism, and a failure of political culture.

Finally, on a more subjective note, the lasting damage that Apartheid did to the South African national psyche is truly immense, and compounds all these problems. Visit there, then Botswana, for a taste of this.

Feb 19, 2013


I'm just a sucker for these adverts:

A bit too much eye candy, though. Need more ladies busting sweet tricks.

Feb 15, 2013


The other day I learned quite to my shame that "George Eliot" was the pen name of a woman named Mary Anne Evans. I had been resolving for quite some time to get back into the audiobook routine for walking to work, and on brief research her books seemed well-suited to being read aloud, so I picked up a copy of Middlemarch.

I'm not too far in, but so far (while it is rather plodding at times) it's about the most penetrating and insightful book from a psychological standpoint that I've read in years. It's like what Freedom could have been if it had the full human experience, and not just the shitty, awkward parts.

Eliot's work seem to be of that type which a patriarchal society deems (still does, to some extent) "women's issues," things like love, romance, family, emotions, etc. It sounds dumb stated outright, but those stereotypes still hold true today, to some extent, and I think they do serious damage to males in our society. Because that women stuff is of critical importance to the day to day existence of practically every man alive. As I was joking on Twitter, Cormac McCarthy is useless when your girlfriend has dumped you. He'd just tell you to buy a new pair of boots and ride a stallion to Mexico.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote once:
Put bluntly, if you call yourself a reading man, but don't read books by women, you are actually neither. Such a person implicitly dismisses whole swaths of literature, and then flees the challenge of seeing himself through other eyes. 
This is not a favor to feminists. This is not about how to pick up chicks. This is about hunger, greed and acquisition. Do not read books by women to murder your inner sexist pig. Do it because Edith Wharton can fucking write. It's that simple.
Further updates as I get deeper in.

Feb 13, 2013

Gallows Humor

I was talking to a friend on gchat the other day and noticing my jokes, which normally trend towards subjects like debtor's prison and being flogged at the mast, were getting rather alarmingly gruesome (it was the point where I said something involving a slurpee made of human kidneys, I think). It was hard to avoid this kind of talk, even when actively trying to rein it in.

Gallows humor has a long and storied history, of course, for the simple reason that it's an easy way for a person to relieve psychological pressure and reassert some control over a situation, however hopeless. Lincoln was famous for his inappropriate stories and dark jokes—those that knew him said it was a critical stress-relief tactic.

Internally, the hyper-violent imagery I keep producing feels like something that needs to be vented. I've got a fairly bottomless well of bitterness and hatred, but normally it's not the artesian kind. But serious emotional turmoil can change that, and I think various subsystems are trying to vent the contents onto ridiculous nonsense rather than just take it out on whoever happens to be closest. (Of course, grim jokes by themselves can be obnoxious too, so maybe it's just a passive-aggressive way of taking it out on people.)

But in any case, if you're talking to me and I keep bring up death by nerve gas or the like, rest assured it's just an emotional blowoff valve.

Feb 7, 2013

Comedy Gold

I previously recommended Allie Brosh's blog Hyperbole and a Half using this title (who has stopped updating her blog for nearly two years now, apparently she is struggling with depression), and I've found another I like nearly as much. It's called Bitches Gotta Eat, and it's damned funny. The author is a black woman named Samantha Irby.

It's particularly interesting because her humor seems very much my style. I recognize that Ellen DeGeneres and Sarah Silverman know the craft of comedy well, but I don't enjoy them quite as much as Bill Hicks, say, because I don't feel like they're speaking quite as much to my personal experience. Maybe that's dumb, but it's a reminder that we're all just human beings deep down.

In any case, definitely check this one out. I was guffawing in between the sobs.

Feb 6, 2013

Why the Drone Strike Legal Memo Is Secret

The big news in civil liberties circles today is the leak of a white paperlaying out some of the legal reasoning behind the administration’s drone strike program. It’s not the actual memo itself, but it does appear to track the reasoning as it was described to Charlie Savage. Glenn Greenwald lays out all the legal implications in detail here, something I won’t bother to reproduce. I’d just like to focus on this already-infamous section on an “imminent threat:”
Certain aspects of this legal framework require additional explication. First, the condition that an operational leader present an “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.
Here we have it, ladies and gentlemen, the reason why the actual drone memo is secret. Not (entirely) because of knee jerk secrecy instinct, and definitely not because it would harm national security, which is and always was preposterous. No, the reason is the only justification they can cook up is so flagrantly ridiculous, so abusive of the plain meaning of words, so stuffed with Orwellian up-is-downism that a bright 5th grader could tell this is bullshit sophistry. If legal words can be bent this far then they mean nothing. When it comes to President Obama and assassination, there is no such thing as law, there is only power.

This memo is telling us one thing: the executive has arrogated unto itself the power to assassinate anyone, anywhere, at any time, without any justification, oversight, or due process whatsoever.

Be warned.

Feb 4, 2013

Better than the Original

This is going to sound strange, but I've been reading some damned fine Harry Potter fan fiction recently. It's a work in progress called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I picked it up on the recommendation of the recently-deceased hacker genius Aaron Swartz, who had this to say:
This is a book whose title still makes me laugh and yet it may just turn out to be one of the greatest books ever written. The writing is shockingly good, the plotting is some of the best in all of literature, and the stories are simply pure genius. I fear this book may never get the accolades it deserves, because it’s too hard to look past the silly name and publishing model, but I hope you, dear reader, are wiser than that! A must-read.
As it says at the beginning, you really need to give it a couple chapters to get started before passing judgment — the first bunch are quite silly and it doesn’t seem worth sticking with until you’ve gotten past them.
It's really funny and really thought-provoking. Very highly recommended. Best of all, it's available in ebook form for free!