Monday, September 17, 2007

From La Vanguardia today: Local philosophy prof Norbert Bilbeny, who was in my class for a couple of years, writes an ethics column in La Vanguardia. Today he answers a letter from a woman who claims that an American couple offered her daughter $85,000 to be a surrogate mother (by the way, Bilbeny says that surrogate motherhood for pay is unethical, which sounds fair enough to me, though there are obviously arguments on both sides).

I looked up surrogate motherhood, of course, and found that 1) surrogate motherhood is illegal in Spain, and in some US states, so there's something dodgy about this story already; Arkansas, Nevada, and Florida are the only states where surrogate motherhood contracts are legally enforceable 2) where it is legal, surrogate motherhood is handled through official channels, including doctors and lawyers, rather than through casual offers 3) 95% of those who volunteer to be surrogates are rejected 4) the going rate is about $15,000 5) surrogate motherhood is comparatively unusual, maybe a thousand births a year in the US. I therefore conclude Bilbeny got suckered into answering a bogus question.

I've never been entirely sure why the Spanish press jumps onto Anglo-American media frenzies the way it does; it never makes a big deal out of continental European media hoo-haws. They've jumped on the "OJ busted for armed robbery" story, which is weird because OJ was never a star outside the United States, and they're all over the Madeleine McCann story, which the English press is wild about. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears get lots of press in Spain, too, God only knows why. Probably because people around the world are fascinated by slutty drunk rich white trash chicks.

Best guess on Madeleine McCann: Her doctor parents were in the habit of sedating her when they went out. They gave her a little too much the night she died, and the parents panicked, got rid of the body, and made up the kidnapping story.

Remember, European newspapers have to print stories on the negative side of what they always call "the American way of life" at least once a week or their readers get all anxious that people in the States just might be better off in some ways than people in Europe. The readers need reassurance, you see.

So La Vangua's lead story yesterday, all of page 3 and part of page 4, is on how those overworked Americans have to get up horribly early in the morning. Evidence: A USA Today graphic showing that in 1990, 9% of Americans got up in the morning for work before 6 AM. In 2000 it was 11%, and in 2006 it was 12.3%! Boy, that's a major trend there. Eusebio Val, however, says, "The current trend is due to a combination of factors: the expansion of the suburbs, traffic jams, workplace pressure, and the generalized hyperactivity of the society." Oh, come, come, my good man. There's nothing wrong with getting up before 6 AM, though it helps if you go to bed at 10 PM, when most Spaniards are sitting down to dinner. When I was teaching in Lawrence I had to get up at 5:45 to make 8:00 class, and I survived.

Val also says that longer working hours "are one of the reasons for the sharp audience decline of the big television networks, which still run between 6:30 and 7:30 PM, when many people are still in the middle of a traffic jam." I doubt it. I think it's because those newscasts are old-fashioned and out of touch, made by people over 55 for people over 55. And, of course, because the mainstream media has lost credibility among even the moderate right.

Val quotes a teacher named Amy Rhodes, who whines, "I don't like this 24/7 trend. Our society is too stressed, too self-centered. We don't see our friends enough, or even our own family. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I wouldn't mind going back to when stores closed down on Sundays and at night. That would force us to manage our time better and to relax. It would let us have stronger families and communities."

She's nuts, of course, since teachers work comparatively few (but intense, if they're any good) hours. School in many places starts at 8 AM, so they have to get up at 6, but they go home at 3:30 or 4. Two of the three people quoted bitching in Val's article are teachers, and the third is a Washington bureaucrat, which fits into what I've learned through the years in the teaching business: a sizable minority of the people who work in the public sector are lazy, complaining, and perpetually dissatisfied with life.

Val adds that, well, average US family income did increase to $48,200 last year, and only 12.3% lived below the American poverty line ($20,000 for a family of four), but that's bad because more people are working more hours! The average employed American works 1777 hours a year, which is clearly abusive and exploitative when you compare it to the average employed Spaniard's 1745 hours a year. A Spaniard works 22 whole hours less than an American per year.

Val concludes this think-piece by blaming the tragedy of the American working week on "sprawl." He quotes some book by some guys who call American suburbs "artificial, idealized, unsustainable, and self-destructive." Yeah, right. They seem like quite pleasant places to me, in general.

On Page 4, they also run a piece by Marc Bassets, who says, "The first impression of a new arrival to New York is that in shops and restaaurants, service is faster and they are friendlier. After a few days, one discovers that frequently the friendliness is linked to tips."

1) You only tip waiters, bartenders, cab drivers, and hotel bellmen. I've heard that women tip their hairdressers. You don't tip the great majority of service workers with whom you come in contact.
2) I remember pulling beera s few times at the football stadium fifteen years ago or so. We weren't supposed to accept tips, but some people would give you one anyway.
3) Yes, some waiters and bartenders are friendlier than they would be if they weren't expecting a tip. So what's wrong with that? If the customer's happy, who cares about the waiter's sincerity? It's not like you're going to be best friends or something anyway.
4) In the US there's a sort of "We're all in this together" mentality--you do your best not to give other people a hard time, and other people will do their best not to give you a hard time. That means, when at work, you try to be helpful, and you expect other people to be helpful when they are at work. Acting like a jerk to the customers when you hold a service sector job is simply socially unacceptable, and it will get you fired. That way the jerk waiters are filtered out quickly; they get demoted to dishwasher or janitor or somewhere they don't have to deal with people.
5) In the rest of the US, the stereotype of New Yorkers is that they're rude. Europeans think New Yorkers are so friendly they must be phonies. This tells you something about how friendly many Europeans are.

Regarding the Iraq War, Xavier Batalla adds, "Bush's authentic strategy is to hold on until he can pass the war in Iraq on to his successor." Carlos Nadal says, "The real withdrawal, which may be the fatal hour of a shameful abandonment like that of Vietnam, with incalculable consequences, will not affect Bush, but his successor...This is an attempt to reach the 2008 presidential election with the least possible damage for the Republicans." That is, the job of Mr. Batalla and Mr. Nadal, as analysts for La Vanguardia, is to translate the latest Democratic Party talking point into Spanish, and then sign it themselves as if it were an original idea or something.

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