Post-Internet Lament

The world hasn’t yet invented the right word for my deep new disenchantment with the Post-Internet.  It has elements of a broken romance, a burn-out,  a nervous breakdown, depression and physical anxiety.    It’s a state of exile from a cyberspace where things became  unfriendly,  where words harm rather than help.  A frontier that defined itself as futurity becomes a dead shopping mall behind  rags and barbed-wire.   

       It’s no simple matter to reinvent oneself, to create a new world of sensibility, in a new place where one is somehow freed of one’s own characteristics, that historical baggage of illusions and emotions.  If you have no illusions or emotions, then you cannot imagine or love, but delusions and lies are a deadly peril to a loving relationship.

       It’s so many years ago, that I can’t even remember when my dry interest in digital communication machines became a real passion.   Somehow, though, I was waking up each morning with true, unfeigned enthusiasm about opening a personal computer.   I took joy in the sound of its automatic dialling and its eerie modem squeal and hiss, which I had learned to recognize as the anthemic sound of connectivity to the world.  It was a digital space, but it was also “the world,” because it the wider globe  beyond the tight boundaries of my small Balkan nation, with its local obsessions, grim news, good guys and bad guys.

       I understood, in a halting way, that the Internet was a product of Cold War military science and was not some etheric digital product made by morally stainless angels.   But I blessed even the military for having invented such a radical glamorous change for good in my own daily life.  As a nomad, as a woman without a mother language or a homeland, cyberspace seemed a proper place  for the likes of me to dwell and conduct her life.   No shouted questions there, no demands for visas or work permits, no fierce identity politics; it was so new and different.

    You all know the story of what happened afterward.  It took about a generation,  with many historical twists and turns, some good some bad.   But these days, I wake up with the grave understanding that the physical world around me, which once seemed so limiting and archaic, is much less menacing than the world behind the screen.   I know perfectly well that search engines, ranking systems, social algorithms and even well- paid thieves, spies,  provocateurs and vandals are very profitably busy there.  

       When I glimpse my own reflection in the screen, I can see I’m not happy.  I have the  guarded look of a Warsaw Pact woman playing it cool at some police checkpoint.   I have a new appreciation for, say, Russian Bolshevik feminists who found themselves, a generation later, in a brave new Soviet world that lacked Czarists but had plenty of gulags.    Of course I built the world I live in now, I was keen to contribute, because I knew it was a revolution, but revolutions aren’t permanent.     

        The squalid, ugly and deeply deceitful Post-Internet situation we have now isn’t permanent, either.   

     My nightmares arise from my post-traumatic stress of remembering how bad things once were.   I overreact because I can see a social sensibility that freed me, that I enjoyed, becoming an oligarchy that is a funhouse mirror of a nomenklatura.   I don’t hear the halting squeal of a desktop modem nowadays.   Instead I find myself afflicted by the endless repertoire of beeps, tingles, and squeaks that are emitted by a device on my own body.   This device is small, fast, relentless, impersonal, has cameras and microphones on board, and  emits these Pavlov noises in order to connect, control, and alert me.  I have no global Internet anonymity; they literally have my number.

     I could turn the beeps off, but I know that the crucial interactions in this device, the activities of genuine political and economic importance in this small but potent device, are mostly silent and deliberately unrevealed to me.   I’m not a citizen of my smartphone; I am its product.  It’s not a personal phone, it’s social.  And it’s not “global” — it is oligarchic.

     Its presence in my life no longer gives me a vicid feeling of agency, connection and protection.  It’s become old-fashioned to think that a portable telephone might make a woman more “safe,” when away from her kitchen and hearth.    I can remember that older social attitude, because I am not young anymore, but now my phones and its many insistent apps feel isolating to me.   Its presence reminds me that my parents are long dead and can’t help me, and that I live far away from the twentieth century’s routines.

     Slavenka Drakulic once wrote a book called “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.”  That was true; it was doable.   Plenty of us survived Balkan communisms, from Tito to Milosevic, if we lacked fierce and powerful enemies,  and if we had family friends and some social stability, or some job or social role where we could be useful and could keep our noses clean.   But their was also a pervasive atmosphere of surveillance and repression, carried out by a remote, elite, airtight and secretive apparatus.  You didn’t have to be personally whacked with a baton to know that you were living in a bad scene.

         And now, after a long historic period of relative footloose livability for me, I can feel the trouble.  I’m getting an odd neuralgia, a carpal tunnel, from my daily forced submissions to this small glass device.  It’s bad for my posture; I feel pangs in my arms and shoulders; my busy screen-wiping fingers take on odd arthritic shapes.   The digital world is older now; the normal people around me are older, too; and I can feel this device, with its compulsive jingle-jangle of advertising sounds, aging me before my time. 

        My feeble eyes behind their advanced, lightweight bifocals get swollen and misty from staring at it. I look away, with a vague, unfocussed feeling of dread, but pretty soon, I have to look back. Because I have no other portal of access into my own life anymore. 

        Of course I saw that process happening.  I understood early on that the digital was ridding the world of the analog clutter of material belongings, that apps were swallowing the functions of other devices.   That process was freeing me to prosper out of a global suitcase, even if it took a cruel toll on certain things I loved and cherished, such as newspapers, magazines, vinyl records, antiques, books and my happy memories of an analog world.   I wanted to be free, and I wanted information to be free, and I knew that freedom, especially for a woman, was a stern and demanding state of affairs, that it always had a cost. 

          It’s easy for an early adapter  to lament about a mainstream situation, but the mistake is thinking that history has some happy end.   History is not soluble, it is one damned thing after another.  No cure is permanent and there is no Silicon Valley solution to the human condition.   Even science is nobody’s rational utopia, it’s an “Endless Frontier,” as Vannevar Bush remarked not long after his crash course in creating nuclear war.   

          So I’ve learned to trust my instincts and look for the comic relief in smart mistakes.

          Recently, my smart phone misbehaved.   I was on the road, between flights, between countries, working hard.   I had no time to fix my phone’s obscure glitch, which was buried deep in some OS compost heap of pull-down menus.

         Instead,  my phone anxiety just detached, somehow.  My frustration and rage drifted away from the surface of the malfunctioning phone.   My technical troubles lost their grip on my psych.   I was out of their loop. 

      Instead of drowning in the black-screen ocean of lost connectivity, I realized that I could swim.   I even enjoyed it.   Of course I felt a spasm of work-guilt, because I was the chattel who had let go, downed my tools, denied the unspoken command to be instantly available 24-7, and defected into the 404 world of not found, user error…

         But I had also broken a bad habit.  Of course the people traveling around me didn’t see this tiny act of rebellion; no, we the livestock of Big Tech are much like a some ancient feudal clan with rigid customs and superstitions engrained by centuries of dysfunction.  But even feudal peasants have black sheep.   The bullshit floats to the surface eventually: the nakedness of the imperial social networks comes to light.

        Then I realized that many behaviors I once saw as my virtues were in doubt; they were indeed virtues once, because it took a lot of tech education, discipline and craftsmanship to learn them, but the moral context around these behaviors had changed.   It was like some act of comfort — like an adult daughter pouring grandpa a nice shot of vodka — that had turned into vicious enabling behavior.    

     Why did I dutifully answer every entity, all the time, on all social media?   Were all those bots or paid social PR really friends, inhabiting my reality, to which I wanted to be connected?  Wasn’t I thoughtless applying hard-won habits of personal politeness, net etiquette, and authentic connection in situations where they no longer made any sense?    And wasn’t I inflicting that same behavior on everyone else?

        I needed to pay more attention to my lived experience.  Especially the psychosomatic pangs, which were flinching reactions of my body to a worldless situation, a deep social woe that still lacks any proper political terminology.  Some day I, or more likely somebody else, will be able to verbally package this instinctive loathing, but we’re in the early days of psychoanalysis for our current state of oppressive, feudal, digital sociality.   

      I can’t deny that I suffer, that I am in pain and I feel betrayed and abandoned.  I feel the blueness of a failed love affair, with passion gone cold and a creeping insecurity.  My concept of the routines of a happy life has collapsed. 

        Mind you, I was never a happy-go-lucky type who was happy to be happy.  But when I didn’t cringe from my glass spy device, I had many elated moments in my life.  I hopped from bed most mornings propelled by creative ideas, and keen to see what was cooking, far over the horizon.  My digital actions gave me that satisfaction, in war or in peace,  in relating to friends or  enemies, to close family or utter strangers. 

      Where has that cherished feeling gone?   I won’t find it by tossing my phone aside and going to live in the woods, like Henry David Thoreau.   Nor do I want to start bitterly raging that I’m lost in a world I never made, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  What was it that I wanted in the first place, and how did I mistake the technical means for the moral end?  
Finally , as a war blogger before the word blog was even invented, when my words went virally online, I believed I saved my life and maybe somebody else’s conscience. But today with Syrian crisis, and the general indifference and web inefficiency, I can honestly admit that I was wrong.

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Phonix Renewed

La Fenice Rinnovata

The “Phoenix Renewed” Project
by Bruce Sterling and Jasmina Tesanovic
Villa Abegg, Turin, April 18, 02018
JASMINA TESANOVIC. Ciao a tutti, we are the “Globalisti a Torino.” I am Jasmina Tesanovic from Belgrade Serbia, and this is Bruce Sterling from Austin Texas. We first met here in Torino.
BRUCE STERLING. Torino is the city of our romance. We are two writers, and we both write novels, but in Torino, we have adventures. In Torino, we are constructive. We curate events here, and we build projects. Our new project is called “La Fenice Rinovata” or “The Phoenix Renewed.”
J. Our project was named by Filippo San Martino d’Agliè. He was the original interior designer for this building. He also created a great many operas, ballets, festivals and tournaments here in Torino. We know a lot about him because Bruce is writing a fantascienza novel about the Count Filippo d’Agliè.
B. In fact, both of us are writing novels about Torino now. These novels have been slow and ambitious projects for us, because in Torino, we do strange things such as creating the “Casa Jasmina House of the Future” with the Torino Fab Lab and the Arduino company. In Belgrade, or in Austin, we would never establish a writers’ office and a creative residency inside a baroque royal villa. But it’s true; here we are.
J. For the “Phoenix Renewed” project we will occupy an office on the top floor of this palace. We will finish our two novels in here, with the kind hospitality of the Company di San Paolo. My own novel is not about Madama Cristina, but about Turinese women who were famous or anonymous, queens or women of the street, whose history has been forgotten or misrepresented. It’s an atemporal fantasy.
B. So, our goal in this press conference is to explain to the press, the public, in Torino, in Italy, and everywhere else in the world, a few things about this building, which is our new creative headquarters and inspirational work-space. This place is called the “Villa Abegg.” When it was first built, 375 years ago, it was known as the “Delightful Vineyard of the Royal Madame Christine Marie of France, Duchess of Savoy, Princess of Piedmont and Queen of Cyprus.”
J. So for our new roles in this palace, Bruce will be the “Visionary in Residence.”
B. Jasmina will be the “Royal Madama Jasmina.” Instead of having a “house of the future,” here will have our “palace of the past.”
J. Until recently, this palace was an archive. So it really was a ‘palace of the past,’ but now it is necessary to move the archive and find a new use for this building. Someone needs to move in here, maybe a foundation, or a library, or an international culture group, or a global charity — this building has already had all those uses, because it is almost four centuries old. This building is a phoenix that must be renewed.
B. Since we are the “Globalisti a Torino,” we have volunteered to occupy part of the building ourselves. We could just write fiction about the royal palaces in Turin. We write a lot of books, all kinds, as you can see. We’re very literary people. But in Torino we become very practical. In Torino we live the dream. We perform the art. We meet each other in Torino, and after that, we even got married. Because we are committed. That is why we have to exist in this palace!
J. And we will tell everybody we know that we are doing it. In books, in magazines, newspapers on websites, social media, even on video. We will bear witness to our experiences in renewing this phoenix. Hopefully, we will finally finish our two novels about Torino, while working here in this beautiful villa.
B. The ‘Vineyard of the Royal Madame.’ Why us, and why here? Our romantic fate has brought us here. This is an act of Turinese conceptual art. We have no salary for this project, we have not been hired to do it, and no money has changed hands. We are the new tenants of this historic villa, and we are fantasists.
J. We know that this project may seem like a prank idea by Italo Calvino. We expect to enjoy ourselves in this villa and on these beautiful grounds. However, we have a mission. We are doing this as an act of profound respect, and we are grateful for the privilege.
B. We want to declare our passionate solidarity with the people who first created this building. That would be the Royal Madame Christine, Duchess of Savoy, and her boyfriend and master builder, the Count Filippo San Martino d’Agliè.
J. These are two Turinese people who knew about war, plague and international struggle. They were people from the turbulent era of Manzoni’s great Italian novel, “Promessi Sposi.” Her father was stabbed to death in the street. He was kidnapped and had to spend years in a foreign prison. They were aristocrats, but they also suffered. One of their sufferings was that they were secret lovers who could never marry.
B. This is the place is where they lived together: Christine and Filippo. They built this palace in a vineyard well outside Torino, so that they could meet here quietly, and discuss their great schemes for reforming and constructing their royal capital.
J. She was a royal widow, and he was her lover, her court favorite and basically her Prime Minister, her Master of Fabrication. They were secret lovers, but they worked hard in here. As long as they were both alive, they never gave up building.
B. Then she died, and this is where he spent his last years: on these grounds. This was the retirement home for Filippo d’Agliè, he who was the “Bel Filippo,” “Filindo Il Constante,” the greatest creative genius of Baroque Torino. He and his royal mistress were building Turin for magnificence and grandeur. We think they would want us to help to renew their glorious phoenix. We consider this a moral duty for guests in Torino like ourselves. And, also, we consider this a kind of esoteric invitation. We never asked for this situation to arise, we never planned for this to happen, but it has arrived for us a happy opportunity. Only in Torino do such things ever happen to us.
Thank you, and now we will take questions.
Jasmina Tesanovic. Ciao a tutti, noi siamo i Globalisti a Torino. Io sono Jasmina Tesanovic di Belgrado, Serbia e questo qui e Bruce Sterling di Austin Texas. Ci siamo incontrati per la prima volta fisicamente, qui a Torino.
Bruce Sterling. Torino e’ la citta’ della nostra storia d ‘amore. Noi siamo due scrittori, scriviamo tutti e due romanzi, ma a Torino viviamo delle avventure. A Torino siamo costruttivi, curiamo degli eventi e facciamo dei progetti. Il nostro nuovo progetto si chiama “La Fenice Rinnovata” o “The Phoenix Renewed.”
J. Il nostro progetto ha preso nome secondo Filippo San Martino d’Agliè. Lui ha fatto il design interiore di questo palazzo. Ha creato pure come ben sapete tante opere, balletti, festival, tornei, qui a Torino. Sappiamo tanto di lui perche’ Bruce sta scrivendo un romanzo di fantascienza su Conte Filippo d’Agliè.
B. In effetti, tutti e due in questo momento stiamo scrivendo dei romanzi su Torino. Sono dei progetti lenti e ambiziosi dato che a Torino facciamo delle cose strambe come costruire Casa Jasmina, la casa del futuro, con il Fab Lab di Torino e la compagnia Arduino. A Belgrado o Austin, non avremmo mai un studio da scrittori e una residenza creativa dentro una villa barocca reale. E’ la verita’.
J. Per il progetto La Fenice Rinnovata occuperemo un ufficcio sull’ ultimo piano di questo palazzo. E finiremmo i nostri due romanzi proprio qui, grazie all ospitalita gentile della Compagnia di San Paolo. Il mio non e’ proprio su Madama Cristina, ma su tante donne famose e anonime, regine e donne di strada, di Torino la cui storia e stata dimenticata o travisata. E’ un storia atemporale.
B. Lo scopo di questa conferenza stampa e di spiegare alla stampa, al pubblico, a Torino, in Italia e in tutto il mondo, un paio di cose riguardo a questo edificio, che e’ il nostro nuovo quartier generale e lo spazio lavorativo di grande ispirazione. Si chiama Villa Abegg. Quando fu costruita 375 anni fa era conosciuta come “La deliziosa villa della Madama Reale Cristina Maria di Borbone-Francia, Duchessa di Savoia, Principessa di Piemonte e Regina di Cipro, et cetera, et cetera.”
J. E parlando dei nostri nuovi ruoli in questo posto, Bruce sara’ il “Visionario in Residenza.”
B. E Jasmina sara’ la reale “Madama Jasmina.” Invece di avere una casa del futuro qui’ avremmo una palazzo del passato.
J. Questo palazzo fino a poco tempo fa era un archivio. E’ un posto meraviglioso del passato ma adesso c’ e’ l’ urgenza di trovare un destino nuovo per la villa. Bisogna che qualcuno venga qui, forse una fondazione, una biblioteca, una scuola o gruppo internazionale, o un organizzazione caritaria. E un posto ideale per un ritiro contemplativo ed emotivo, atemporale. Ha gia’ avuto tante di queste funzione durante i passati 400 anni. Ma la Fenice adesso deve essere rinnovata.
B. Dato che siamo Globalisti a Torino, siamo pronti ad occupare una parte dell’ edificio. Potremmo scrivere dei romanzi sui palazzi reali a Torino. Scriviamo tanti libri di vari generi, come potete vedere siamo della gente letteraria. Ma a Torino diventiamo molto pratici. A Torino viviamo un sogno. Facciamo arte come performance. Ci siamo incontrati a Torino e ci siamo perfino sposati. Abbiamo una missione. Ed e’ per questo che dobbiamo essere in questo posto.
J. E lo faremmo sapere a tutti cosa stiamo facendo. Nei libri, giornali, rete, social media, anche video. Saremmo i testimoni se non gli attori attivisti della Fenice rinnovata, sperando di finire finalmente i nostri romanzi grazie all’ energia del posto.
B. La Vigna della Madama Reale. Perche’ noi, e perche’ qui’? Il nostro destino romantico ci ha portati qui. E’ la nostra arte concettuale torinese. Non siamo pagati per questo, non siamo stati assunti. Siamo dei fantasisti.
J. Sappiamo pure che e un idea buffa un po’ alla Italo Calvino. Ci divertiremmo qui e passeremmo dei momenti davvero belli. Ma lo facciamo come atto di profondo rispetto e siamo grati del privilegio.
B. Vogliamo dichiarare la nostra appassionata solidarieta’ con le persone che hanno costruito questo palazzo. La reale Madama Cristina, la Duchessa di Savoia ed il suo amante e maestro di costruzione, Il Conte Filippo San Martino d’Agliè.
J. Queste due persone ne sapevano qualcosa delle guerre, conflitti internazionali, gente dei tempi di Manzoni, del suo grande romanzo, I Promessi Sposi. Il suo padre era accoltellato per strada. Mentre lui era rapito e portato in prigione. Anche se erano aristocratici hanno patito. Una delle loro pene era pure che erano amanti segreti che non potevano mai sposarsi.
B. Questo e’ il posto dove hanno vissuto insieme, Cristina e Filippo. Hanno costruito questo palazzo in una vigna ben fuori Torino, cosi’ si potevano incontrare in pace e discutere i grandi schemi per riformare e ricostruire la capitale reale.
J. Lei era una vedova reale, e lui era il suo amante ed il suo preferito cortigiano, in sostanza anche il suo primo ministro, il suo maestro di costruzione. Erano amanti segreti ma hanno lavorato molto qui. Finche erano tutti e due vivi non hanno smesso di costruire.
B. Poi lei e’ morta e lui ha passato i suoi ultimi anni in questo posto. Era la casa di ritiro per Filippo d’Agliè, che era il Bel Filippo, “Filindo il Constante” e il piu’ grande genio creativo di Torino barocca. Lui e la sua amante reale costruivano il magnifico e il grandeur e crediamo che sarebbero contenti che li aiutassimo a rinnovare questa Fenice gloriosa. Lo consideriamo come il nostro dovere morale per gli ospiti di Torino come siamo noi. Poi e’ anche un invito esoterico. Non abbiamo mai chiesto questo, non avevamo un piano, ne l’ idea che sarebbe successo , ma lo vediamo come un opportunita’ felice. Solo a Torino cose di questo genere ci succedono.
Grazia, e adesso le domande.

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The Rich and the Normal

A few weeks ago, the Italian people finally broke the political framework that dates to the end of the second world war.   The M5S Five Stars Movement, a party without a heritage, won the most popular votes.   The M5S has been on a wave of growth since winning mayoral control of some Italian cities.

 The second-ranking parties are also new in their outlook, since they are right wing populists, anti-immigration, anti-European,  or pro-capitalist oligarch fronts.

Berlusconi returned from the political wilderness,  elderly now and still infamous for his bunga-bunga orgies with minors,  but carrying on his personality cult as if  nothing had ever happened.   

The true loser is the democratic party, the pro-NATO centre-left, the stabilising major coalition party which gave many Italian premiers and presidents and set the twentieth-century tone of  Italy  as a founder of Europe and a pillar of the welfare state.   This establishment party almost disappeared from the ballots of their faithful supporters, and the other leftists, socialist and communist coalition did little better.

It now remains to assemble a governing coalition out of this new political landscape, a tough prospect given that few of the new players have ever done any governing or even shown serious interest in the prospect.   Italy is famous for short termed governments, with rotating parties and replaceable politicians.   The ruling philosophy has been that the facade changes rapidly so that things can stay the same.  

It is an old, conservative, pragmatic, functional and very Italian way of getting by, and avoiding spasms of  turmoil, bloodshed and disaster. 

This situation is different now, though, because there is nobody left in office who knows how to remain calm and sell out to the status quo.   The people have renounced the political order and voted for visionaries, demagogues, adventurers and amateurs.   Is there any democratic ideology of governance that still works in Italy?  Has power passed from Rome into the hands of Brussels, or social media, or offshore investors?  If there is no system left except for rebels against the system, who will pave the streets and run the schools?  Italy is famous for its deep superficiality, but no living Italian has ever seen an Italian state of affairs so profoundly superficial as this.

In the Italy of the remote nineteen-seventies  there was once a popular rock band called The Rich and the Poor: “I ricchi e i poveri.”  The band was a quartet of two couples, a blonde man and woman, and a second pair who were brunettes. 

Of course the rich were the blondes, while the poor were the others.  Nevertheless they Rich and the Poor were singing and dancing together, and there was no big difference in their vocal or musical capacities, even if everything in Italy of the 1970s understood the stark reality of wealth and poverty in everyday life.

A rock band of the 1970s could elide these differences or even make them entertaining, singing and dancing together!  Now the divisions are stark.

Poverty is normal, it’s the life of billions in slums all over the world.  If you have a roof above your head, soup on the table , emotional fulfilment and a few cheap thrills, then you share the human condition with centuries of your ancestors.  You may lack capital, but you’re well above the abject miseries of prisons, hospitals and refugee camps.  It’s not that bad, and personally, I wonder if demanding more might be more trouble than it’s worth.

 However, it’s the rich who have soared abnormally above this baseline.  They have hoards of capital, they live  in castles, they have wealth management services to maintain their unearthly standards, and there’s no way that a song-and-dance can  bridge these emotional differences. 

During the ski season in the Dolomiti, a resort can charge 2000 euros per night nowadays. It doesn’t matter if most of the hotel is empty; these outsize fees underwrite the new exclusivity.  If you can’t spend a middle-class monthly income on a hotel room, you might as well sleep in the snow.   Resort hotels become gated communities, and the middle class vanishes, replaced by the rich and the seasonal workers of the service class. 

Instead of being an arena for popular sports, the slopes become meeting grounds for the normally invisible ultra-rich, whose market power has re-arranged resort society so that they meet no one but one another.    Mass culture vanishes and our resorts, our cities, our houses, are occupied by capital.  The money still flows, the hotel does pretty well, the banks don’t complain, but in the meantime we’re displaced from our lives.

 Some define our new society, with this sharp division of income and equity, as a new feudalism.    But history just rhymes, it doesn’t repeat itself exactly: in feudalism, the serfs actually mattered.   The castles weren’t automatic, they weren’t owned and controlled by distant sovereign wealth funds.   In feudalism there were consequences if a castle was de-populated; it couldn’t guard itself with drones and robots.  

A feudal aristocracy was anxious for glory and honour; they spent a lot of time dressing up in iron and lace, displaying courtly manners and cavorting as cavaliers.  They were very keen to behave in lordly and ladylike ways that marked a sharp division with the vulgar.  They wanted to be visibly different from the 99 percent of their day, and without just crassly declaring that they had a lot of money. 

I’m starting to worry about the ultra-rich, who seem to be more like Russian oligarchs than the Medici.  They’re very rich, and they don’t lack for intelligence, but they’re starting to look frankly monstrous.

Some kind of “post human turn” has a grip on them, when you glimpse them in their exposed moments between the private jets, the limos and the penthouses.   Their clothes aren’t much to boast about — they don’t wear ball gowns or tuxedos — but they are sinking a lot of money into gym routines and plastic surgery.  

When they’re old, as they most commonly are, they don’t want to look it.  They want to be perceived, or they see themselves, as dynamic surfers, golfers, skiers, or maybe as dance-all-night club kids who are nevertheless in their seventies.  They’re a quantified software version of Frankenstein: with unnatural longings than can never be appeased, they are lonely and soul-less, poised on the brink of some Donald Trump snappish rage that will defend their own fakeness at any price.

They have become the new post-global class of  yacht monsters.  They dock up in sleek vehicles, commit their various off shored, tax-sheltered, poorly-defined crimes, frauds and misdemeanours, and then sail over the horizon,  unreachable, beyond reckoning.

Worst of all, although they are a ruling class, they don’t have the look of one.  They have the furtive look of embezzlers and gamblers.  Instead of being charismatic Prince Charming, they’re the kind of guy who provokes a #metoo outbreak; instead of being captains of productive industry, they are fixers who game systems to make sure no one can prosper without them getting a cut.  They build castles, but they’re secretive and hideous, like the Yanukovych hunting lodge north of Kiev.

They have the swollen, weary look of white elephants; they’re marching toward a graveyard.  Some day they will be gone, maybe sooner than anybody can intuit, and then nothing will be the same.

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New Year #Metoo

A friend asked me to follow the flow, and write this text #metoo. Cavafi, the Greek poet who lived all his life by the sea and wrote about everything but the sea, before dying he said: Let me too say something about the sea.

The sea is too big a topic for literature, just like the oceanic scale of harassment, stalking and rape.

All my life I’ve been thinking about the oppression of women, writing about it, acting out. I am a feminist activist: sexual harassment was one reason I became one. Nobody is born a feminist.

But my point of view, even after many years and much female experience, was never the view of a victim. I still forbid myself to think in that way. Especially after bearing witness, and writing down the stories of women raped in war-crimes in former Yugoslavia. It was their brave testimonies that helped make that common deed of war into a crime, officially, in 2008.

I appreciate this recent flow of #Metoo. As an activist, I can hope that my work has done well, now that the mainstream is picking it up. Not from Balkan battlegrounds, but from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, no less. The fish stinks from the head.

My mother was a doctor, and a resistance fighter in World War Two. She always considered uniformed soldiers, guerrillas, killers and rapists as all part of one whirlwind of violent cruelty. I understand that every woman has the right to feel differently and express herself thus. But to my mind, in the everyday matter of violence against women, there is no major difference between war and peace.

My mother survived war, and I was born in peacetime. My mother told me how she was harassed by the husband of a friend. My father and she socialized with this man and his wife on daily basis. I grew up with their daughter, who was my own best friend.

He was a notorious womanizer, a good looking, sweet talking gentleman with high social position. I was a grown up teenager when my mom told me about his advances: I went to his office and denounced him to his face. As a gentleman, he was horrified. He threatened to punish me by damaging my career, which actually followed.

Many years later, I also learned his daughter, as a child, had been molested by the family gardener. This gardener was no gentleman, but the gentlemanly father hushed it all up anyway; he forbade his daughter to ever speak of what had happened to her.

Once, as a teen, I was assaulted, in the tight closed room of the elevator, by the big brother of my neighbourhood girlfriend. I told her and her mother about it, but they stayed silent. Big brother was the hero of their family: handsome, dashing, bold…. So whatever he did was right, or else my fault! Some years later, the guy ended up in prison for fraud.

At the age of 21, I went to the Yugoslav embassy in Rome to renew my passport, since I enjoyed living alone in Rome. The ambassador, who was a family friend, received me in his Roman office and assaulted me out of blue. I told my parents. Next time he came to our home, with his wife and son, for dinner, nobody mentioned the episode. We all behaved as if nothing untoward had happened.

I left Italy and went to Belgrade to renew my passport. Then I stayed in Belgrade, forsaking my Italian life. The ambassador eventually made a good career. He became the last president of Yugoslavia before it disintegrated in bloodshed.

At a film festival in Ischia, I presented a movie script, in a lively Italian scene full of movie celebrities. Along came the president of Italnoleggio, the Italian governmental film company. He tried to seduce me by showing me pedophile pictures of small girls dressed in high heels. I immediately reported this to the celebrities: they listened, and told me that Rome was a notorious center of all sorts of weird vices, and that a newcomer like me would get used to it. They needed the government funds he was managing; they were the talent, but also the great man’s hangers-on. I later heard that he committed suicide in a state corruption scandal.

Asia Argento, the Italian actress and director, is paying a hell of a price for her coming out in Italy’s machiavellian cinema culture, with its Catholic double standards. I especially appreciate her honesty of not playing the violated “good girl”, which exactly what puritan creeps don’t like about Asia Argento.

The worst of the lot was my gynecologist. One of those nightmares every woman dreads when she must expose herself to a trusted male professional. I was young, I was a foreigner, and I was in a very special clinic, alternative politically and economically correct, in a Catholic country. The doctor was handsome, famous, young and with nice manners. And yet he did it, unexpectedly, out of sheer male power, without any shame or fear.

I was so shocked and horrified that I didn’t even know how to interpret that, and cope with it in future. Go to the police? Refuse all male doctors on principle? Never have any children? This, in a country where Catholic nuns secretly performed abortions? Who was in charge of my body and the abuse of it: the doctors, the state, the church? It certainly wasn’t me, so #metoo.

I know a young woman, who is not a feminist, who criticized the #metoo coming out. She said that those women made choices to advance their careers, that they could have bravely and forthrightly shouted no at the moment, instead of all lamenting #metoo together, much later.

I asked her if she ever had any similar indecent approaches herself, being a beautiful girl with a job. She said of course. But then, she added, those work situations didn’t bother me. What bothered me was a pedophile who hit on me while I was with my parents on summer holidays. I never dared to tell them, or tell anybody. Oh, and then there was that priest in the church, who groped me while I was with my best friend for her christening ritual.

I was alarmed that things hadn’t turn out much better for this young brave friend who saw no use for feminism, “God forbid.” There must be a lesson here for women of all ages, colors, creeds and financial conditions. Woman may not support, or even believe, the coming-out women, but they should bear in mind that it can happen to #themtoo!

I know women who say they adore men in power, that coercive power feels sexy… I also know women who routinely beg men for money and favors, because of sex, or just because they are men, and men are present in the world, and have wealth and power. I know women who consider all men equally worthless, and cheerfully go to bed with them anyway. But I never met any woman who liked being assaulted or raped. No one can protect or console those who suffer, when they live in denial without empathy.

After the conflict, if it can end at all, can come truth and reconciliation. The #metoo situation is a viral social-media event, like others of our time, but the emotional pain of the sexual abuse of power, and the righteous joy of revenge at last, can’t last long enough to transform gender relations. We should open a place where the wisdom of empathy among women is stronger than viral media. Where we can write about the deep and stormy sea, instead of mutely living on its shores, until we die.

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