IS COMEDY OUR LAST HOPE?

Babyshark's Minority Report - Washington Mall

In ancient Greece, the agora –which means “gathering place” or “assembly”- was where most of the political, spiritual, artistic and commercial life of a city took place. It was also the marketplace. In Athens, it was 30 acres in size and had stoai –porticos-, theaters, a gymnasium, five temples, a courthouse and even a prison. In ancient Rome, the equivalent was the forum. These were places that were full of life and integrated many different activities, from oratory and philosophy, to justice, politics or athletics. It was the beating heart of the city.

In most of Europe, throughout history, the central square has played this crucial role. Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, for example, has traditionally been the scene of everything from bullfights to football games, from markets to public executions. Today, in a hyper connected world, social networks have become a contemporary, technological equivalent of agoras.  Like their physical predecessor, social networks are important because they offer information and news from businesses, organizations and other people, and support, augment and extend already existing networks.

One of the many fascinating aspects of social networks has been that it has enabled instantaneous fame or relevance. In a time of disillusion and disenchantment with mainstream politics, social networks have empowered the people, and people, in turn, have empowered non-conventional political actors, like comedians, to participate in the debate of ideas. Medieval jesters were familiar figures in the Middle Ages, they were employed by the court to amuse their master and their guests. Frequently this also included mocking or criticizing the master. Records show that jesters entertained Egyptian pharaohs, and that Aztecs also had them in the 14th and 16th century.

Frequently, in literature, the jester represents honesty and common sense. Monarchs depended on them for insight and advice, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Today’s comedians don’t work for the political elites since this would immediately discredit them. Instead, they have slowly become an independent force and an increasingly more powerful one too.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Beppe Grillo

This new type of political celebrity is still quite recent, but becoming more and more relevant. The most famous case is that of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement party, in Italy. In 2013, it was the second most voted list, after the Democratic Party, obtaining a higher share of the vote than opinion polls showed, and winning more votes than any other single party. In the US, comedians like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are driving political debate and getting people interested in politics while at the same time entertaining them. In 2010, Jon Stewart hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity”, with Stephen Colbert, on the Washington Mall. 215,000 people showed up.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Stewart Colbert Maher

While most politicians are totally inept at humor, comedians can be very good at talking about politics, and politicians, articulating and expressing the anger and frustration of the people. This is why they very frequently become uncomfortable for those in power.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Bassem Youssef & Gran Wyoming

Bassem Youssef (above left) is one of the most widely watched comedians in the Arab world and considered by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Apart from being a practicing cardiac surgeon, Youssef is also a comedian with an incredibly successful satirical news program and an enormous following. His humor got him arrested by the Morsi regime and later his show was censured by the military that toppled Morsi, proving that comedians are an incredible force that politicians or rulers simply can’t ignore. But although powerful, even popular public figures like Youssef  can be silenced. Last week he announced that he is ending his successful program due to pressures, presumably from the new Egyptian government, led by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

In Spain, José Miguel Monzón, better known as El Gran Wyoming (above right), is also a doctor apart from a comedian. unlike Youssef, however, he does not practice medicine. He does host a popular TV show, “El Intermedio”, which has audiences of up to 3 million. His new book “No estamos locos” (We are not crazy) is a blunt analysis, full of irony, of the current situation of disillusion of Spaniards with their politicians. He is a ferocious critic of abuses of power carried out by the powerful.

mayor-of-reykjavic-jon-gnarr-pride-parade-drag

Jón Gnarr (above), a popular comedian from Iceland, with more than 72,000 followers on Facebook, was elected in 2010 mayor of Reykjavík, a city that is home to a third of the island’s 320,000 people. His party called Best Party, was created in 2009 and included people with no background in politics. It is really a satirical political party that parodies Icelandic politics. It obtained 34.7% of the vote, clearly a sign of disappointment with establishment politicians. Among other measures, Best Party promised free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the Reykjavík zoo and a drug-free Parliament by 2020. He also announced that he would not enter a coalition government with anyone who had not watched the TV series The Wire. A major supporter of gay rights, as mayor he appeared at the 2010 Gay parade dressed as a drag queen.

There is little doubt that electing Gnarr to city mayor was a protest vote, but voters everywhere are trying new things and, as a professor of political science at the University of Iceland put it, people are ready for anyone, other than the usual suspects. They are empowering the people they consider the most honest, their comedians. Proof of this are the results of the elections for the European Parliament.

Die Partei, a party founded by a former editor-in-chief of a German satirical magazine got 184,525 votes. They ran with slogans such as “Merkel is fat” and defending absurd ideas, like big German tits or building a wall around Switzerland, but they obtained one delegate in the Parliament. They also said that they would rotate their delegate every month so everyone would get a taste of EU money. Disenchanted European citizens also voted extreme right in the UK and in France, and hard left in the PIGS countries. In Spain, Podemos, a party that did not even exist four months ago, was the second most voted party.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Tiririca

Last year, more than 50 clowns ran as candidates in the municipal elections in Brazil. One of them, Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva, better known by his stage name Tiririca, had a slogan that said “What does a federal deputy do? Truly, I don’t know. But vote for me and I will find out for you!”. Can’t be much more honest than that. In 2010, Tiririca, who has been accused by opponents of being illiterate, which in principle would disqualify him to run for office, became the second-most-voted congressman in Brazil’s history. His political project focused primarily in helping circus artists, funding cultural projects helping fight prejudice against Northeastern people in the Southern regions of Brazil and increasing funds to primary education.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Candigato Morris

In the Mexican city of Xalapa, a cat ran for mayor in last year’s elections. El Candigato Morris. He didn’t get elected, but he obtained more than 160,000 likes on his Facebook page. That’s one way in which voters release their frustration. In Portugal, “Homens Da Luta” (Men of Struggle), a musical parody group with more than half a million Facebook followers, which has participated actively in anti-austerity protests since 2011 ran in the municipal elections held in September 2013.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Dieudonné Anelka

In France, controversial comedian Dieudonné has made headlines recently after a salute that he invented was performed by his friend, footballer Nicolas Anelka, during an English Premier League match. Although he claims the gesture, called quenelle in France, is anti-establishment, many have interpreted it as antisemitic. The comedian, who has been fined on several occasions for inciting racial hatred and hate speech, has even threatened to run for the French presidency.

Babyshark's Minority Report - Russel Brand

Perhaps one of the more visceral and outspoken celebrities around has to be Russell Brand. Articulate and intelligent, the British comedian was once defined as “part Robespierre, part Rimbaud”. Not one to shy away from controversy, the flamboyant and charismatic comedian has openly said he thinks there will be a revolution in England and that he imagines the overthrow of the current political system. He confesses to be disenchanted by politics and considers politicians as frauds and liars. Brand is not very clear about what system he would like to see implemented, he in fact seems to prefer some anarchy and chaos as necessary elements of a transition.

What is clear is that dissatisfaction with the political system is widespread and the omnipresence of social networks and media helps spread the discontent. Our democracies and politicians feel obsolete and dated, and there seems to be a desire for something new. And while the people may get the details wrong they know what they want, and that is more diversity and more representation. They have lost their faith in their political systems, they are frustrated. And they are more than happy to try something new, and it really doesn’t really matter whether they voted a party defending big tits, a green party, a group of euroskeptic xenophobes and racists, a mayor offering free towels in swimming pools who dresses as a drag queen, a clown or a cat. They want change. Now all these new actors have the ball in their court, they’ve got their 15 minutes of fame.

Maybe it’s time that we start taking our comedians more seriously. I say…Conchita for president.

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Skateboarding Amid the Ruins of War

Skateistan - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro BocanegraSkateistan is an unconventional school in an unconventional place. What began in 2007 as informal skateboarding lessons by Australian Oliver Percovich in an empty fountain in Kabul is now, thanks to international donors and skateboard industry partners, an international non-profit which offers skateboarding and more traditional education to children in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Pakistan.

The staff is international and they work mostly with children aged 5-18, over 50% of them streetworking kids. Skateboarding is what gets them hooked into the program. Then, once in, they learn many other things. Apart from skating, the teachers also focus on leadership skills, civic responsibility, multimedia, creative arts and they also explore culture, traditions, natural resources and peace. The students decide what they want to learn.

Skateistan 5 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

This skateboarding school, which now has more than 400 students and a 5,400m2 skatepark and educational facility,  is open to all ethnicities, religions and social classes. Streetworking children share classroom with sons of government ministers. The school has Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek or Tajik children who, united by their love of skateboarding, create bonds here that trascend social barriers and learn that they are not that different from one another. Many of these kids come from extremely poor backgrounds, and this program provides these marginalized youths with opportunities, not only to meet other children from other cultures, but also empowers them to overcome adversity, teaching them self confidence. In a country devastated by several wars, having this common bond also brightens up their lives, gives them hope of a better future and gives them a voice. Here, kids can be kids.

Skateistan 2 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

The school operates six days a week and provides all the skateboards and the safety equipment.  Most of its operating costs have been funded by the embassies of Denmark and Norway which also funded the construction of the Kabul facility, together with the embassies of Germany and Canada.  The German Federal Foreign Office constructed a second facility in Mazar-e-Sharif. Skateistan has numerous sponsors and partners from the skateboarding industry. They also receive donations and support from a network of international groups and volunteers.

Nancy Dupree, the director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, explains that children who have grown up in war, surrounded by negative attitudes towards compatriots of different ethnic and secular groups can now meet children from other backgrounds, compete and learn to play with one another, respectfully, “setting patterns for future harmonious interactions through life”.

Skateistan 6 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro Bocanegra

But this is a country still very much still grappling with violence. On September 8th, a suicide attack in Kabul resulted in the deaths of several children, four of which were students of the academy. The bomb was detonated outside the International Security Assistance Force headquarters, where many of the streetworking children of Kabul sell trinkets, scarves and chewing gum

Skateistan 4 - Babyshark's Minority Report - Alejandro BocanegraOne of the most remarkable aspects of Skateistan is that 40% of students are girls, many of them having to go against the wishes of members of their families, who don’t approve this kind of activity for girls. The school promotes gender equality in one of the most gender-biased societies in the world. But amid the ruins of war…they skate on.

This is a short documentary on Skateistan:

To donate to Skateistan to their website.

 

Christine Lagarde

When French president Nicolas Sarkozy asked Christine Lagarde to join his cabinet in 2007, as Minister for Economy, Industry and Employment, she was already the first ever female Chairman of Chicago-based global law firm Baker & McKenzie. She is a respected antitrust and labour lawyer and today, as first female Managing Director of the Intenational Monetary Fund, she’s considered the 9th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine (2011) and part of a very exclusive club of women that include Dilma Rousseff or Angela Merkel. She certainly looks the part, poised and elegant, calm and reassuring, reflexive and charming, her skin looking permanently tanned in contrast with her silver hair.

After Dominique Strauss-Kahn‘s very public downfall and resignation, as a result of a sex scandal  -to the deep embarrassment of France; Christine Lagarde was immediately mentioned as a possible successor, and she received the support of Britain, India, the US, Russia, China and Germany. The Telegraph once described her as “the woman with no enemies”. From her first day on the job she had very complicated issues on the table, and her no-nonsense style was evident from the start and some statements she made angered many, especially in Greece. It was in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, where she basically described Greeks as rampant tax dodgers and ruled out any breathing space from the austerity measures the country faced.

She is a hard-working woman, with a strong and elegant presence, firm in her convictions and obviously someone who speaks her mind. She is an outsider to politics in France, because she did not attend the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, where most high-ranking French officials and politicians are groomed. She also never distinguished in math, being a Managing Director of the IMF who is more a lawyer than an economist. Being an outsider gives her a better perspective of things probably.

She was born Christine Madeleine Odette Lallouette, and her parents were both teachers. She studied in a girls’ school in Maryland, US; she got a degree in Law in Paris and a Master’s Degree in political science. She also worked as an intern at the United States Capitol, as congressional assistant to William Cohen. She has divorced twice, but no one really knows much about her two ex-husbands. They are not even mentioned in her official biography, which shows how fiercely she controls her public image. She has two sons, is a vegetarian and never drinks, although she did have a glass of champagne in an airport when she found out that had been appointed IMF boss.

Being French, there’s the issue of the elegance too. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who laughed at a similar question once, asking the interviewer if she’d ever ask that question to a man; Christine Lagarde has no problem talking about her wardrobe. In an interview with Vogue, she confessed that gets her clothes from three places mostly: Chanel, Ventilo and Austin Reed.

One of my favorite phrases by Christine Lagarde is that men, when left to themselves, make mess of things. Which is, well, as we all know, completely true. She is a strong believer in gender equality and has said that women are better than men when it comes to managing tasks and common sense. This is why she wants to hire many more women than men while she’s MD of the IMF.

She was always an overachiever. Many don’t know that as a teenager, Christine was a member of the French national synchronized swimming team, for example, or that she sang backing vocals in a ska band called “Les Messages Mixe” before getting married.

As Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde faces incredible challenges, like world economies on the brink of collapse, especially in Europe. She still has four years to go, but it will not be an easy ride for sure. Saving the Euro will be no easy task. The journey will be full of dangers and crises. And we need strong leaders in times of uncertainty.

Will Miss Lagarde be one of those leaders we so desperately need? Will this elegant and competent French woman be able to help fix the mess that we men created?

Anderson Cooper

CNN journalist Anderson Cooper has always felt the need to be where the action is and where History unfolds. His personal style is both provocative and emotional, and is probably a result of a life full of unique experiences.

Anderson Cooper is an American journalist who has reported from almost every prominent war zone in the last 15 years, including Burma, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda. He has covered the tsunami damage in Sri Lanka; the Cedar Revolution in Beirut, the death of Pope John Paul II; the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles; the Egyptian Revolution from Tahrir Square, the bombings in London, the violence in Mexico.

 

He is the son of artist, designer, socialite and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who was especially famous for her jeans collections in the 1970´s, and a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping 19th century tycoon. Born to a wealthy family, he had a priviledged upbringing. At age 10, Cooper was already modelling for the likes of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein among others. However, as a journalist today he is a celebrity in his own right, with his trademark premature gray hair and his unique emotional, honest and provocative style of journalism.

Adventurous from an early age, at 17 he travelled around Africa where he contracted malaria and had to be hospitalized in Kenya. When he was 21, his older brother commited suicide jumping from the 14th-floor terrace of Vanderbilt’s New York City penthouse apartment, a dramatic event that marked him profoundly. He studied both Political Science and International Relations at Yale University and he also spent two summers as an intern at the CIA.

Despite being today the anchor of his own CNN show Anderson Cooper 360º, and having worked as a correspondent for 60 minutes, and for ABC news, he really has no formal journalistic education. His first correspondence work was in Myanmar, where he entered on his own with a forged press pass and started reporting on the student riots for Channel One, a small news agency where he worked at the time. In the early 1990’s Cooper lived in Vietnam for a year to study the language.

 

Cooper brings a very personal style to his reporting that has been frequently called emo-journalism. This was especially true during his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Because of his credibility, humanity and authenticity he was once described as the anchorperson of the future.

Recently, while covering the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, a violent fight broke out outside a store and a boy was wounded in the head with a stone. Cooper, who was reporting from the scene, stopped, picked up the bleeding boy and pulled him away to safety before continuing his reporting. The video was seen around the world. It is this kind of actions that set Anderson Cooper apart from traditional war journalists.

 

Dispatches from the Edge”, Cooper’s memoirs about covering the South Asia tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and other news events, recently topped the New York Times Bestsellers List and other bestseller charts. He reportedly earns more than $4 million a year.

-To read my original article: Anderson Cooper

-Anderson Cooper talks to Journalism School

-Anderson Cooper carries boy in Haiti

The Zuck

The day everyone has been waiting for is coming. Facebook’s $11.8 billion initial public offering will make Mark Zuckerberg, who is only 27 years old, one of the world’s richest men, apart from one of the most influential. The social network he created when he was just 19 is today one of the most valuable companies in the US and the world.

The IPO will be the biggest of any Internet company ever since Google’s in 2004, and could raise up to $10 billion. The price per share will likely be somewhere around $28-35 dollars. The final price will be set the night before the day it begins trading, probably May 18th. He has announced he plans to sell 30.2 million shares, which would net him around $1 billion. He will be richer than Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, if the company prices at the top of its range.

In the end, Facebook will trade in the Nasdaq, which also lists companies like Apple and Google. Nasdaq and the New York Stock Exchange compete fiercely over listings. Although the NYSE continues to lead in the number and value of company debuts, this deal gives Nasdaq one of the most coveted deals ever and is an important win because it increases its reputation as being the exchange of choice for technology companies. It opened an office in Silicon Valley 20 years ago.

Today it is clear that Facebook is by far the world’s most succesful social network. Not only has it become popular for staying connected with friends and family, it has also given all of us a voice to express ourselves and has taught us that we are all brands. It has transformed the way we socialize and the way we receive information.

Revolutions taking place today -from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement- owe a great deal to Facebook, which has enabled people to communicate with each other, even when official and mass media were censuring the events and the news.

Mark Zuckerberg -The Zuck- has resisted taking his company public for years, obssessed with building something authentic, which would be both very personal and also appealing for millions of people everywhere -more than 900 million today- across all cultures, from Harvard to Tahrir Square. He has also aggresively innovated, being famous for introducing new products quickly. In doing so he has become a visionary, without even setting out to become one.

Zuckerberg will still retain about 57 percent of the voting power after the offering, making sure that Facebook will remain as much his as ours when it goes public.  

-To read the original article in PDF: The Zuck.

About Elegance

Even if we tried really hard, we would not find too many examples of elegance in politics. And I’m not referring exclusively only physical elegance. I mean elegance of any kind. It is almost as if beauty and refinement were at odds with the exercise of public office. I once met a Spanish female politician who spent most of her time travelling around Europe. She had not been to the city center of Madrid in about 3 years, she simply hadn’t had the time, so her husband bought her clothes. You can imagine what her wardrobe looked like.

Among women, Elena Salgado, the former Spanish Minister of Economy and Finance has been a recent notable exception. Christine Lagarde, the sophisticated and stylish managing director of the International Monetary Fund is another. We have Nancy Pelosi. And then, of course, we have the incredibly elegant Queen of England.

It’s not easy to find elegance today anywhere. Back in the early days of air travel, gentlemen had to take off their hats to enter the plane, they served martinis, you had a decent meal. Of course it was not all exactly as perfect as it looks in movies, but still, today we fly packed like chickens, the person next to you might be wearing bermudas and sandals and the whole experience is frequently a nightmare. Somewhere along the way elegance went missing.

Politics today, more than ever, has become a sort of show. We watch carefully crafted speeches, we read news that in part have been scripted as well, we hear and see what they want us to hear and see. Press releases and press conferences frequently frame the debate, journalists are frequently happy copying and pasting. Politicians have learnt the art of manipulating the press and the press will repackage it, throw it at us and we will swallow it in the papers or in the evening news. The media promotes this, of course, because for them reality has to be, in a way, a show as well.

For all politicians borrow from the entertainment business, however, it seems they have not yet learnt that we love well-dressed people as well. There is something about an elegant man or woman that inspires respect and admiration. It is not scientific, but we, for some reason it seems that we tend to lend more credibility to someone who is impeccably dressed. We will more readily associate higher ideas to better-dressed people. We discriminate even if we don’t want to. We want to be seduced.

There are also not that many handsome men or beautiful women in politics. We do have the attractive and charismatic Prime Ministers of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, and of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but that’s as close as we get. Maybe Jay Leno is right when he said “politics is just show business for ugly people”.

I have written this article, Bring Back Those Elegant Men, as a reflection on physical elegance in politics.

My latest article is also about elegance, but not in politics. I absolutely loved discovering La Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Élégantes, a subculture specific of the cities of Kinshasa and Brazzaville in Congo. I found it truly inspiring and quite relevant to any debate on elegance.

Since I’m on the issue of elegance, I would also like to draw attention to three other articles I wrote some time ago. In one of them,The Emperor’s (Funny) Clothes, I take a look an incredibly intriguing politician, Muammar Gaddafi, who was the eccentric ruthless dictator of Libya. The article is not about politics, but strictly about his unique sense of fashion. I also dedicated an article to his famous female guard, who captured the imagination of people worldwide. The article is titled Lipstick and Fatigues.

Lastly, I also wrote a piece about the young Palestinian fashion designer Omar Joseph Nasser-Khoury, one of the most interesting talents to emerge from the Arab world. He combines the motifs and the refined cross-stitching, typical of his home land, with bold tailoring, to create modern designs.

 

Women On Top

From bunga-bunga parties to genocide, from recruitment of children soldiers to senseless wars, from the massacre of civilians to waterboarding, from appropiation of territory to oppression, humiliation and selective killing, and from religion to invasions…if there’s one thing that men have demonstrated throughout History is that they are uncapable of responsibly ruling the world.

The authors of a recently published report conclude that having women in positions of power has a positive effect, both in the aspirations of girls and in the expectations of parents for their daughters. This study was carried out in India and shows that a quota for women is good because it eliminates gender differences, sets an example and is inspiring for younger generation.

Women have been present in positions of power since the beginning of History, but this has been an exception, not the rule. I align myself with media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner who once said that men should be barred from office for 100 years everywhere. In this article I reflect about the women currently ruling many countries around the world.

However, it is not realistic to expect women to assume positions of power -both in politics and in business- unless the very nature of work is redefined. Business and politics everywhere have to be reinvented so that women don’t find themselves having to chose between creating a family and competing for the highest jobs. Nordic countries offer a good template to follow, as I discuss in this article. Scandinavian women enjoy generous maternity leaves and their jobs and positions are generally guaranteed. Iceland has one of the highest levels of women in the labour force and also a high fertility rate, compared to other countries. Surprisingly, the United States is one of the few countries with no paid maternity leave national program.

For a look at the situation of women in the workforce today, take a look at this article. Unlike other articles from my magazine, I did not actually write this one. I read a full 14-page Special Report in The Economist and simply selected the facts and figures I thought were more relevant, so I was more a curator than an actual writer. For a quick glimpse at some interesting figures of women around the world, also check this map I elaborated, based on figures from this report.

The case of Lesotho is very interesting. It is a tiny country surrounded completely by South Africa, with a population of just 2 million. It ranks eighth in the world, by the World Economic Forum, when it comes to bridging the gap between the sexes. This can be partly explained by the vaccuum left by men when they left en masse to work in mines in South Africa, but education has also played an important role. Sadly, though, Lesotho has also one of the highest rape rates in the world.

Oprah Winfrey, another American media tycoon and philanthropist, has understood well the potential of Africa. This article talks about her Leadership Academy for Girls. The academy prepares girls from impoverished backgrounds to be the future leaders of Southafrica and the continent. Today, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first and currently the only elected female head of state in Africa, a continent with 1 billion people and 14.72% of the world’s population. Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen.

After centuries of bad management and government, isn’t it about time women took over?