Cadillacs, Yugos and Van Moofs

Being a member of Generation X, I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the Sarajevo Olympics.

“Where is Sarajevo?” I asked my father.

(I knew perfectly well where Sarajevo was. I just wanted to hear my father explain it.)

“It’s in Yugoslavia,” he answered.

“Yugoslavia?” I said.

“It’s kind of like Switzerland,” he said, “only with Polacks, Turks and Greeks instead of Frogs, Germans and Italians.”

To translate from my father to English, “Polacks” meant “Slavs,” all Slavs. “Turks” meant “Muslims” and “Greeks” meant “Orthodox Christians.” So he was basically accurate. Yugoslavia was a multicultural Slavic state full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

“How is it like Switzerland?” I asked.

“It’s got mountains,” he said, “and it’s neutral.”

“Neutral?” I said. “Isn’t it communist?”

“Yes,” he said. “But they’re neutral commies, not like the Russians. That’s why we let them have the Olympics and didn’t boycott them. Unlike the East Germans or Polacks, they can also travel. That’s why there are so many of them here.”

In addition to being an expert on Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe, my father was also a devotee of big American cars. In fact, he didn’t consider anything else a real car, just a toy. For years, our primary vehicle was a gigantic 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. While comfortable on long trips, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood wasn’t particularly fuel efficient. Like like a Leopard II or Abrams Tank, you measured fuel consumption in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.

In other words, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood was capitalism before neoliberalism and neoliberal austerity, capitalism at the height of its power, capitalism before the gas lines and the 1973 recession. That a member of the lower-middle-class (well upper-lower-middle-class) like my father could buy and maintain one was a testament to New Deal America, to the enfranchisement of the working class, to freedom and democracy. Who needed communism when anybody in America could afford to keep a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood? Franklin Roosevelt had already won the Cold War. Marx and Stalin weren’t evil. They were just besides the point.

But what about Joseph Broz Tito? While long dead by 1984, Joseph Broz Tito was the guiding spirit behind the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Long before the bloody civil wars of the 1990s, or the Clinton Administration’s and the ghoulish Madeleine Albright’s use of Al Qaeda and the Kosovo Liberation Army to break up greater Serbia, Sarajevo was the secular capital of a Muslim country, a exotically beautiful “Oriental” city in a communist country which had good relations with the west, a place where people who looked like white Americans bowed towards Mecca five times a day. Not far away was Mostar, home of the famous Ottoman Bridge, that also, according to the nostalgic memories of the Bosnian Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica, made supersonic jets and Yugoslavia a major power. Yugoslavia might not have been as wealthy as Switzerland. But it was a far more interesting place.

Nobody, however, would confuse the Yugo, the sub-compact communist clunker Yugoslavia attempted to export to the United States with a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. The Yugoslavian government’s logic was perfectly sound. By 1984, New Deal American capitalism had given way to neoliberal American capitalism and neoliberal austerity. Gas was now prohibitively expensive. No longer could lower-middle-class (or even upper-lower-middle-class) Americans afford to buy Cadillacs. So the idea of exporting a tiny sub-compact that only cost $3000 was not as ridiculous as a lot of people thought it was at the time. People also forget just how bad the compact cars (that cost at least 3 times as much) coming out of Detroit (incompetently made knockoffs of Japanese made cars) were.

It’s too bad the Simpsons never had the insight to make fun of the 1990 Ford Aspire, which started out at $9860 dollars.

Does anybody in the United States even remember, let along remember fondly, the 1990 Ford Aspire? Unlike the Ford Aspire, the Yugo is in fact remembered fondly by some people, including a Dutch guy named “Ralph” who founded a company dedicated to giving people tours of the monuments of the former Yugoslavia in its most famous, or infamous, export.

YUGO TOUR is a car ride in a vintage Yugoslav Zastava car that gives you a taste of everyday life in Yugoslavia. By driving through the remains of the Yugoslav urban space in Belgrade and Sarajevo, we try to keep everything as authentic as possible and help you experience a day in the life of a typical Yugoslav person. We will play the music from that period, drink “Yugoslav Coca Cola” and tell you about the ideals, architecture, and history of a nation that no longer exists. There is no better way to learn the history of one country than to immerse yourself in it on one of our tours. Experience Belgrade as the booming capital of Yugoslavia in a ride along impressive brutalist architecture, bombed buildings, a concentration camp and Tito’s grave. Or return to the days that Sarajevo was the beating heart of Yugoslav rock music and the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Dear comrade, don’t hesitate; book a YUGO TOUR before it’s too late!

Note: According to a Serbian acquaintance of vast knowledge of the history of Yugoslavia, Yugotours is a silly concept ridiculed with historical inaccuracies.

The interesting thing about the Dutch is that they’re not only the best looking people in the world. They’re the tallest. It’s a land of literal giants. Indeed, the Netherlands is just about the only place where I, being about 6 feet tall, or 183cm, would feel short. The idea of the Dutch driving around in subcompact seems just as hilarious as the idea of Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying coach, and NBA teams did indeed fly commercial until 1990. In fact, just about the only other place in the world, where the average height is more or less the same as the Dutch is the former Yugoslavia, where people in Bosnia and Montenegro clock in at an average height of 184cm, just a hair below the Dutch average of 185cm. A Yugo, while perfectly adequate for an American, average height 5’9″ or 175cm, was probably ridiculously small for the descendants of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš.

In addition to being good-looking giants, the Dutch are also avid cyclists. Indeed, Amsterdam is probably the most bike friendly city in the world.

Nowadays the Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with 2% in the UK – and this rises to 38% in Amsterdam and 59% in the university city of Groningen. All major Dutch cities have designated “bicycle civil servants”, tasked to maintain and improve the network. And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles.The Cyclists’ Union has long ceased to be a group of random activists; it is now a respectable organisation with 34,000 paying members whose expertise is in worldwide demand.

Dutch bicycles are famous for being cheap, simple durable, and easy to repair. It was with great dismay, therefore, that I found out about how the Dutch, those giants with bicycles, have not only fallen for the E-bike craze. They’ve purchased large numbers of Van Moofs, a high-end E-bike starting at $2000 but averaging closer to $3000, about the same price as a Yugo, not accounting for inflation. Sadly for the Dutch, the company has gone bankrupt. Good luck getting your $3000 luxury E-bike repaired if it breaks down, or even starting it.

If the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood represented American capitalism at its height, it’s most egalitarian and prosperous and if the Yugo represented old-school East European communism, then surely the Van Moof represents neoliberal capitalism. I’m of course an old school cyclist who can go over 500 miles on a cheap aluminum road bike. Something about the very concept of an E-bike offends me. But in general it’s not a bad idea for weaker riders. Put a motor powered by a battery on the front wheel and it will help you get up the hill that you can’t quite handle on your own.

But the Van Moof was more than just a bicycle with a motor assist. It was a status symbol for tech bros, a cheap hybrid that you needed an app to start. Like those ubiquitous pepper grinders you find on yuppie tables in Park Slope it was a simple concept with a lot of extra crap added on that did absolutely nothing worth the trouble of the improvement. The Van Moof was above all about making money from suckers who have too much money. It was the essence of neoliberalism. Steal from the poor to give to the rich so you could then steal from the rich.

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike maker that gained a zealous following, tripled its sales in the pandemic and raised more than $180 million in funding, declared bankruptcy last month, leaving riders in limbo. That’s because the eye-catching e-bikes, which start around $2,000, are built from proprietary parts that only the company makes, available mostly at company-run service centers. And many of the bikes’ functions are linked to VanMoof’s smartphone app.“If I break it, or something else happens, I don’t know where to go,” said Gideon Sutaman, 28, who lives in Amsterdam and has been riding his VanMoof e-bike since December.

At least the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood gave you something for your extravagance.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be right

Sinéad O’Conner died today at the age of 56.

O’Conner first became famous in 1990 for her cover of Prince’s song Nothing Compares 2 U

But that’s not why she’s remembered.

Two years later in 1992, she became infamous when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live and said “fight the real enemy.” The intention was to protest the Catholic Church’s abuse of children, but honestly — and I saw it live — the message didn’t really come across. It came off more like a generic act of adolescent rebellion, which I, being very young at the time, approved of.

The backlash, even in “liberal” New York City, was intense. She quickly became a hated laughing stock. Just about the only famous person who really stood up for her was Kris Kristofferson, an actor and a song writer who starred in Michael Cimino’s bomb Heaven’s Gate and wrote the song Me and Bobby Magee for Janis Joplin. Kristofferson consciously acts like a mountain man from the old west, but don’t let that fool you. He was actually a Rhodes Scholar.

I’m not quite as anti-Catholic as I used to be. In fact, ever since the American left turned pro-war during the dirty war in Syria and now fully supports the proxy war in Ukraine, I’ve started thinking of myself as a conservative, or at least as an apolitical moderate. But in 1992, Sinéad O’Conner was right. The Catholic Church was covering up sexual abuse of boys by priests. What’s more, John Paul II was a terrible Pope, one of the most destructive figures of the late 20th Century. He was the “real enemy.”

I’m quite sure, if there’s a God, Sinéad O’Conner is in heaven, and John Paul II is rotting in hell along with his buddies Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Augusto Pinochet.

On censoring racial slurs in classic movies

The remarkable thing about the censored scene is how ordinary it feels if you’ve watched a police procedural made before, say, 2010. It’s in William Friedkin’s “The French Connection,” from 1971. Two narcotics cops — Jimmy (Popeye) Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, and Buddy (Cloudy) Russo, played by Roy Scheider — are at the precinct, following an undercover operation during which a drug dealer ended up slashing Russo with a knife. The injury has left Russo struggling to put on his coat. “Need a little help there?” Doyle chuckles, then adds an ethnic jab: “You dumb guinea.” Russo: “How the hell did I know he had a knife?” Here Doyle points a slur at the Black dealer: “Never trust a nigger.” Russo: “He could have been white.” Doyle: “Never trust anyone.” Then he invites Russo out for a drink, and they trade masturbation jokes as they head through the door.

Interestingly enough, Gene Hackman didn’t want to use the racial slur and almost quit the film. But William Friedkin bullied him into it, for which in retrospect Hackman is grateful since it was the movie that made him a star. Hackman also did his own stunt driving, something that surprised me when I heard about it. And one of the car crashes was real.

I can’t speak to whether or not black people should be offended by the racial slur in The French Connection since I’m not black. But I will speak from personal experience about racial slurs against Polish Americans. To this day I hear them all the time, especially from woke liberals, who seem to assume that since Polish Americans look like Anglo Saxon Americans they’re fully white and shouldn’t be offended. And to be fair, I sometimes tell Polish jokes myself, especially in regards to the insane amount of Russophobia in Poland and the destructive behavior of elite Polish Americans like Zbigniew Brzezinski, who admits to “creating the Taliban” to get back at the Russians and ooops killing 3000 Americans on 9/11.

When it comes to their foreign policy and subservience to American neoconservatism, the current Polish government are a bunch of dumb Polacks.

As a child I was never offended by Archie Bunker’s use of ethnic slurs for Polish Americans. That’s who he was. You can’t portray a racist without racial slurs. Ironically Rob Reiner’s pompous leftist turned out to be so unlikeable that he wound up making Archie almost sympathetic.

What I was offended by in the 1970s was the portrayal of Stanley Wojciehowicz the Polish American detective in Barney Miller as dim but likeable. It seemed to imply that Polish Americans were objectively as stupid as they were portrayed in the jokes. There was one particular scene, which is retrospect is really funny. Wojo couldn’t understand fellow detective Ron Harris’s distress after he was harassed by some racist fellow police officers. So Barney Miller tells him a Polish joke hoping to provoke some empathy. But it doesn’t work. Wojo was too dumb to understand. As an adult, of course, I recognize that a Polish American too dumb to understand a Polish joke was a hilarious jab at Polish jokes. But as a child, it upset me.

Neocon Deep State?

Why else would President Biden nominate the infamous war-criminal and Iran Contra conspirator Elliott Abrams to even a minor position in his government?

Perhaps it’s because Abrams is an experienced old hand at censoring the press, having gotten his start under the Reagan Administration brow beating the New York Times into reassigning the reporter who broke the story of the El Mozote Massacre to the financial desk.

In the decades since this debacle, two things have become obvious: The first is that the El Mozote massacre was even worse than the reporters were able to determine at the time, and the second is that the US officials at the time, including especially Enders and Abrams, were lying on behalf of the killers.

Abraham Lincoln and Slobodan Milošević

He became President of his country at a critical moment in its history, exactly at the point when the contradictions baked into his complex, multiethnic nation had begun to tear it apart at the seams. A tall, physically powerful man, his inner revolve matched his imposing stature, and he was determined to keep his government, long considered an unworkable left-wing experiment by the world’s more conservative powers, together by any means necessary.

He quickly realized that it wouldn’t be an easy task. His country, as much a collection of semi-autonomous federal republics as it was a unified nation, now faced an important crossroads. Would it be united under its most important, populous ethnic group, and go onto become a great power that would dominant the region? Or would it descend into a collection of banana republics, easily picked apart by the imperial elites of Western Europe? Deciding that his country was far too important to die, he took off the gloves. He raised an army. Eventually he put that army in the hands of his most radical, most brutal generals, three men who had little patience for traditional chivalry, who believed that if you wanted to win a war, you couldn’t spare the civilian population.

But he went far beyond what at the time was called “hard war” or what today we refer to as “total war.” He used the power of the federal government to support the theft of land by white Christians against a non-Christian ethnic minority, ordering the largest mass execution in his country’s history and kicking off decades of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Of course in the age of social media, Black Lives Matter and “Land Back,” I’m not fooling anybody. You all know I’m talking about Abraham Lincoln, not Slobodan Milošević. Yet why do we continue to view both men so differently? Even the most radical, left-wing Americans, the kind of people who talk about how “the United States was founded in slavery and genocide” and how “we’re all living on stolen land,” will occasionally tip their hats to Abraham Lincoln in a way they won’t to Thomas Jefferson, who raped his slaves, or George Washington. At least Lincoln unleashed William Tecumseh Sherman against the Plantation owners in Georgia.

But this only begs the question. Phillip Sheridan, Lincoln’s most effective general, the man who ended the Confederate threat to Washington DC by turning the magnificent Shenandoah Valley into a moonscape, was also the architect of the genocide against the Plains Indians. As far as I know, Slobodan Milošević never said anything quite so openly genocidal as “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

There’s also the issue of slavery. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln transformed a war to preserve the Union, and in the end, New England and Midwestern dominance, into a war against slavery. It was a brilliant gesture that in one stroke ended the danger of intervention by the British Empire, but it was only a gesture. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in those parts of the south in open rebellion against the federal government, and it would be another 100 years before black Americans gained full citizenship.

What’s more, and you will never hear about this in the western media, Slobodan Milošević, in his famous, infamous, St. Vitus Day Speech of 1989, invoked the centuries long struggle of the Serbian people against Ottoman attempts to enslave them, reminding us all that the word “Slav” is the basis for the word “slave.” Indeed, in some ways Milošević’s speech in Kosovo was the Serbian answer to Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech. The choice is simple. Unity or death. One side will win. Worse yet, if one side doesn’t, the country will be at the mercy of foreign occupiers. If Lincoln was a better writer than Milošević, Milošević was also a bit more honest. He understood that, in the end, Yugoslavia depended on Serbian nationalism as much as the United States depended on White Anglo Saxon Protestants, the Puritan descendants of the English Civil War.

Today, it is difficult to say what is the historical truth about the Battle of Kosovo and what is legend. Today this is no longer important. Oppressed by pain and filled with hope, the people used to remember and to forget, as, after all, all people in the world do, and it was ashamed of treachery and glorified heroism. Therefore it is difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat or a victory for the Serbian people, whether thanks to it we fell into slavery or we survived in this slavery. The answers to those questions will be constantly sought by science and the people. What has been certain through all the centuries until our time today is that disharmony struck Kosovo 600 years ago. If we lost the battle, then this was not only the result of social superiority and the armed advantage of the Ottoman Empire but also of the tragic disunity in the leadership of the Serbian state at that time. In that distant 1389, the Ottoman Empire was not only stronger than that of the Serbs but it was also more fortunate than the Serbian kingdom.

Let’s be completely cynical. The only reason we (by by “we” I mean Americans) remember Slobodan Milošević as a war criminal and Abraham Lincoln as a hero is that Lincoln won and Milošević lost. Power doesn’t follow morality. Morality follows power. Had the British and French decided to intervene in the United States Civil War the way Bill Clinton intervened in the Yugoslavian Civil War, and had the Confederacy gained its independence, we would be talking about Lincoln pretty much the same way we talk about Milošević. He raised a gigantic army and invaded his own country. He killed his own people. He committed war crimes and engaged in ethnic cleansing. He betrayed the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. He was a traitor who used illiterate German and Irish immigrants against against an army led by the descendants of George Washington and Patrick Henry. He destroyed the United States of American pretty much the same way Milošević destroyed Yugoslavia. And the debate over whether or not to join the British Commonwealth would probably be as tedious as the current debate in Serbia about whether or not to join the European Union.

And those are my thoughts on the Fourth of July.

The death of twitter and the process of enshittification in the tech world

Only a month after Twitter’s primitive AI content moderation locked my account for a sarcastic tweet attacking supporters of George W. Bush , Twitter is dying. Elon Musk seems to have fired too many necessary tech people along with all of the deadweight in content moderation and censorship.

Good riddance. It’s a miserable, and highly addictive, social media network that only brings out the worst in people. Even worse, it no longer works the way it originally did. Before 2014 or so, you followed x number of people. You got their tweets in your timeline. Now you have to sift through an endless parade of people you don’t follow and never intend to follow but who the algorithm thinks you should follow. In this sense, Musk changed very little. Last year when the Democrats controlled Twitter you were spammed with Tweets by Molly Jong Fast. Now you’re spammed with tweets by Ben Shapiro. Privileged liberals and privileged conservatives are equally annoying.

The whole process (bait you with something good and then switch it out with crap after you’re locked in) has become so normal in the tech world that Cory Doctorow has coined a term that fits so well it’s worth reading the whole article .

R.I.P. Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin died today at the age of 89. He had a long and varied career but the movie I most remember him for is The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. It’s a hilarious movie worth seeing today but it also has the distinction, as far as I know, of being the only mainstream Hollywood movie in American history to portray Russians, or Slavs in general, in a sympathetic light. It also stars arch Russophobe Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner, as an American who manages to overcome his own Russophobia just in time to prevent World War III.