Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Neoliberals Take A Bow At The New Republic

Back on Oct. 30th, I wrote of Peter Beinart's attempt to link Thomas Frank and other dissenters from neoliberalism to xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric a la Lou Dobbs ("The Neoliberals Seek Their Revenge For Questioning the Market God"). From his bastion as an editor of The New Republic, Beinart decried our new breed of economic populists:

For writers like [Thomas] Frank, the tragedy of that era was that the free-trading, Wall Street-friendly Bill Clinton did not use economic populism to permanently lure these angry white males into the Democratic fold. Now Democrats have another chance. But renouncing future NAFTAs won't be enough. Many liberals would like to pick and choose their anti-globalization politics--arguing for more regulation of international trade and investment, but resisting punitive measures to regulate the flow of international labor. Morally, that's perfectly defensible. But, politically, it is likely to fail. There is a reason that the late nineteenth-century populists Frank admires were nativists: While low-skilled immigration may benefit the United States as a whole, it rarely benefits low-skilled Americans. And, for many blue-collar Americans today, Mexican immigration--whether legal or not--is not just linked to broader anxieties about globalization; it has become the prime symbol of those anxieties.

As the title of my article implied, I was less than impressed with Beinart's analysis. To my mind, he was comparing apples and oranges: on the one hand, assuming Lou Dobbs's nativist rhetoric could speak for nuanced policy criticisms for people like Frank; on the other, using the conflation of the two to set up a straw man that was much easier to defend his own precious neoliberal theories against.

So it was a pleasure to see my own (I admit, I'm mugging a bit, but I'm proud) analysis verified by the same magazine this week.

"[I]mmigrant laborers are being screwed by being paid lower wages than Americans (and sometimes lower than the law allows), and the average American worker is being screwed because our jobs are being lost to lower wage workers, who are, as before, being screwed themselves," I wrote. "Does that sound like we're on opposite sides here?"

And lo and behold! This week, in the editors' column in The New Republic, TNR's editors came out with much the same conclusion.

Writing of a highly publicized immigration bust at six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, the editors note,

This was a theatrical stunt, not the makings of an immigration policy. But, if Bush did want a new-and-improved immigration policy, meatpacking would be a good place to start. There is, after all, a reason that immigrants populate the Swift plants: An industry that once prided itself on its stable, middle-class workforce has become a hellhole that only the most desperate workers would enter.

The story they go on to tell should be well-known (and, as it happens, is to readers of Thomas Frank, who devotes a good deal of space in What's the Matter With Kansas? to the subject): Following Upton Sinclair's devastating expose of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle, a series of reforms were launched that eventually cleaned up the industry. Meatpacking was dominated by well-paid union workers by the post-war period; wages were upwards of $20 an hour in today's money, with benefits. Then, slowly came the backsliding: Plants moved to rural areas, wages fell, and safety took a back seat.

"[W]with their move, they changed how meat was processed," write the editors.

They replaced skilled and semi-skilled workers with assembly lines that turned out packaged beef and pork products. Workers now stood on slippery floors in dark, fetid buildings wielding knives and power tools with which they would slice steers or hogs as they swung past at high velocity. They were paid about half of what their unionized counterparts had earned. The Jungle had reemerged.

The new assembly-line jobs were extremely dangerous. Lacerations were common, as were maimed limbs. Repetitive muscular injuries were virtually unavoidable. (Imagine throwing a baseball with the same motion 10,000 times a day.) Nearly one-third of workers at the average plant suffer a work-related injury each year. That has contributed to an astoundingly high turnover rate.

Immigrants became the primary source of labor since the combination of inhuman conditions and low pay meant that no self-respecting American would take the job. Under Reagan, the National Labor Relations Board was de-fanged, and union organizers are frequently fired and occasionally assaulted, in union-busting moves most voters are probably unaware still exist in this country.

So what is the solution to this problem put forward by The New Republic?

if the Bush administration truly wanted to alleviate the tension that surrounds immigration, it would reform the industries that rely on immigration. It could begin by enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, which makes the federal government responsible for assuring "safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women." Of course, Bush has done exactly the opposite. One of his first presidential actions was to overturn the ergonomic standards that the Clinton administration had adopted. These would have applied directly to the meatpacking plants. To add insult to injury, the Bush administration even stopped requiring employers to report these injuries, enabling it to claim the industry has become safer.

Hmm. I seem to remember writing something like:

So this really is a situation in which the little guy loses out and the companies make huge profits; politicians then play the little guys off one another to win elections, and the companies get off free. I say, put the immigrants on the same level as natural-born Americans, prevent exploitative labor practices, and the demand for illegals begins to drop and a competitive labor market exists that does workers a lot better than the system we have now, which to one degree or another the neoliberals support. Fine the hell out of companies for employing illegal immigrants (why always the double-standard when it comes to tough-on-crime tactics with regard to corporate America?) and stop American companies from taking advantage of migrants and, in the process, putting Americans out of jobs... The way of equitable economic policy does not necessarily lead to nationalist demagoguery; it's a low electoral tactic and nothing more, and we shouldn't let neoliberals like Beinart convince us to throw the baby out with the bath water.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Insane Novelist Threatens Critics With Baseless Accusations of Child Rape

We here at The New Libertine have long had our suspicions, but this week we've got confirmation: Michael Crichton is bat-shit crazy.

On the cover of this week's New Republic we were promised an article pithily plugged as: "Michael Crichton, Jurassic Prick." After searching through the magazine, we discovered it was actually the back-page "Washington Diarist" column. Here's how it starts:

There is an obscure publishing doctrine known as "the small penis rule." As described in a 1998 New York Times article, it is a sly trick employed by authors who have defamed someone to discourage their targets from filing lawsuits. As libel lawyer Leon Friedman explained to the Times, "No male is going to come forward and say, 'That character with a very small penis, 'That's me!'"

Got you hooked? Wondering how this related to Michael Crichton? Well, read this passage from his new "novel," Next (as reprinted from TNR:

Alex Burnet was in the middle of the most difficult trial of her career, a rape case involving the sexual assault of a two-year-old boy in Malibu. The defendant, thirty-year-old Mick Crowley, was a Washington-based political columnist who was visiting his sister-in-law when he experienced an overwhelming urge to have anal sex with her young son, still in diapers. Crowley was a wealthy, spoiled Yale graduate and heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. ...

It turned out Crowley's taste in love objects was well known in Washington, but [his lawyer]--as was his custom--tried the case vigorously in the press months before the trial, repeatedly characterizing Alex and the child's mother as "fantasizing feminist fundamentalists" who had made up the whole thing from "their sick, twisted imaginations." This, despite a well-documented hospital examination of the child. (Crowley's penis was small, but he had still caused significant tears to the toddler's rectum.)

Wow! Jesus Christ! Bonus points for the detail on the rectal damage caused by child-rape you sick fuck. But that's not really the point. The writer in The New Republic goes on:

The next page contains fleeting references to Crowley as a "weasel" and a "dickhead," and, later, "that political reporter who likes little boys." But that's it--Crowley comes and goes without affecting the plot. He is not a character so much as a voodoo doll. Knowing that Crichton had used prior books to attack very real-seeming people, I was suspicious. Who was this Mick Crowley? A Google search turned up an Irish Workers Party politician in Knocknaheeny, Ireland. But Crowley's tireless advocacy for County Cork's disabled seemed to make him an unlikely target of Crichton's ire.

It was at this point we stopped reading, scratched our heads, and said, "Huh?" Why was the author doing Google searches on the name? Surely whoever was the ire of Crichton's wrath wouldn't share the same name. I glanced down at the bottom of the page to see what sort of rhetorical half-wit had written this thing, and then-- Well, I'll let the author explain:

And that's when it dawned on me: I happen to be a Washington political journalist. And, yes, I did attend Yale University. And, come to think of it, I had recently written a critical 3,700-word cover story about Crichton. In lieu of a letter to the editor, Crichton had fictionalized me as a child rapist. And, perhaps worse, falsely branded me a pharmaceutical-industry profiteer.

Yes, Michael Crowley, a senior editor at The New Republic, had indeed written a brilliantly devastating feature on Crichton back in the March 20th edition ("Jurassic President: Michael Crichton's Scariest Creation"). The subject was Crichton's State of Fear, a 2004 novel that posited (if a novel can truly posit an idea) that global warming was a ruse concocted by a conspiracy of leftists radicals to terrorize the planet. Or something. Honestly, we can't be expected to read this crap. But we have it on good sources that this is the subject of said novel.

"Although 'State of Fear' comes dressed as an airport-bookstore thriller," begins Bruce Barcott's Jan. 30, 2005 review in The New York Times, "Crichton's readers will discover halfway through their flight that the novel more closely resembles one of those Ann Coulter 'Liberals Are Stupid' jobs. Liberals, environmentalists and many other straw men endure a stern thrashing in 'State of Fear,' but Crichton's primary target is the theory of global warming, which he believes is a scientific delusion."

This was actually our first clue that Crichton was bat-shit crazy; later, we received further clues when in Feb., 2006, the Times noted that George W. Bush was a huge fan of Crichton's, and had invited him to the White House to discuss the novel. Then came Crowley's original New Republic piece, which seemed to confirm that Crichton had become a full-on political hack of the most pathetic variety.

"In a 1995 interview with Time magazine," wrote Crowley, "Crichton hinted at an agenda beyond dazzling people with roller-coaster plots and astounding Hollywood special effects. Somewhat ostentatiously citing Jean Cocteau's The Difficulty of Being, Crichton explained that the French writer 'said what I've always believed about myself. He didn't care about being noticed for his style. He only wanted to be noticed for his ideas. And even better for the influence of the ideas.'"

The gist of Crowley's article, if we recall correctly, is that Crichton--a man in love with his own sense of genius--frequently attacks academics, scholars, intellectuals and any other sort of "expert" in his novels. Such people are too girly, too self-satisfied, and too comfortable in their own little worlds to possibly be correct about anything. That's why they get eaten by dinosaurs. Or don't understand the Japanese are going to take over the country. Or can't bring themselves to believe that women all really wanna fuck their coworkers. You know, they're pretentious.

So Crichton tried to play gadfly to all our preconceived notions about global warming in State of Fear, ultimately (in his afterword) comparing it to pseudoscience of eugenics caliber. That position won him a number of friends in D.C. In February, 2006, Crichton's novel was awarded the American Association of Petroleum Geologists' truth in journalism award, despite being, well, not-journalism.

But Crichton had powerful allies. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), widely considered the dumbest member of the US Senate, and who has referred to global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," called Crichton to speak before the committee he chaired (until the last election): the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

"I'm excited about this hearing," Inhofe old the Times. "I think I've read most of his books; I think I've read them all. I enjoyed most 'State of Fear' and made it required reading for this committee."

(For more on James Inhofe's own bat-shit crazy rantings, see Michael Crowley's "Ill Natured" from the Jan. 20, 2003 New Republic.)

And finally, the smoking gun: Turning Michael Crowley into a kiddie rapist. "It's impossible not to be grossed out on some level," writes Crowley, "particularly by the creepy image of the smoldering Crichton, alone in his darkened study, imagining in pornographic detail the rape of a small child." But what else do you expect from such an avid imagination, one which conceives of thousands of scientists and concerned citizens all getting together to form a global cabal for the exclusive purpose of terrorizing the poor energy sector (as if they weren't having a hard enough time as it is)?

Well, we're not surprised, at least. Not that we saw it coming in the form of accusations of child-rape and penis envy, but we saw it coming: it was inevitable that Crichton's bat-shit insanity would make itself known eventually.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Parliamentary Whore

My loathing for that bitch Margaret Thatcher reaches new lows today, with her response, reported in the Guardian, to Augusto Pinochet's death:

A spokesman for Lady Thatcher, the former prime minister who cherished Gen Pinochet's assistance during the Falklands war with Argentina, said she was "greatly saddened" and had sent her condolences to his family, but would not be issuing a formal statement.

I expect little else from that corrupt bitch, but still I can't fathom how--in the face of the mountains of public evidence attesting to Pinochet's criminality--one would have the gall to say a good word on the man's death bed. Such insolence offends the better selves of all decent Britons, just as Henry Kissinger's continued support (and repression of evidence to Pinochet's detriment through his role on the Council on Foreign Relations) for Pinochet does for Americans.

Of course, nifty titles, wealth and acclaim can't entirely shield Maggie Thatcher from the debased lows to which such people stoop: her son Mark barely avoided prison for his role in a business backed coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea.

What today shows is the disgusting aftermath of the Cold War, more than anything; the self-righteous hawks who knew no low in their zealous pursuit of anything that smacked of socialism continue to feel no remorse for the violence and brutality they helped unleash on the world, marking them as no better than their own worst enemies. I can't even express how enraged I feel that that whore Thatcher continues her happy, self-satisfied existence in London, while Pinochet's crimes go unpunished in Chile. The desire to see them both burning in hell is almost enough to make me Christian again, just so I can have the joy of believing it could be so.

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The World Has Become a Slightly Better Place

Yes, yes, "tears of the world are a constant quantity" and all, but the world became a slightly better place today when the brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet bit the dust. The air has become slightly less sulfurous, I think. His coup on Sept. 11, 1973 ousted the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende and unleashed on the world, Operation Condor, a joint effort between nationalist dictatorships and military juntas in South America whose messianic nationalism saw them as the final defense against atheistic communism. Operation Condor, then, spread terrorism around the globe, including the assasination in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier by car bomb, which killed an American, Sheridan Circle. This in spite of the fact he was an American ally, supported in his crimes (as the historical record increasingly shows) by Henry Kissinger and the Nixon White House. Then there were the "desaparecidos," the poor bastards secretly arrested and murdered by the dictatorship (numbering in the tens of thousands).

While I'm sure there are many words that should--and need--to be written about this remarkably foul specimen of our species, at the moment all I can say is good riddance and here's to roasting in hell you God-awful son of a bitch.

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Coming to America

The first time I saw Kultur Shock was back in March, opening for Gogol Bordello at Neumo’s. Honestly, I knew nothing about them at time, and I actually skipped the first half of their set to drink in the Bad Juju next door, until finally the insane sounds we were hearing drug my girlfriend and me into the theater. Onstage, a Japanese bassist with a mohawk was dancing around, next to a couple vaguely Eastern European-looking guitarists and a fiddler, and in front, there was tall, broadly built man, with most of his head shaved save for a long sprout of dreadlocks coming down from the crown of his skull. He’d jump around, the tail of hair whipping about while the band descended into a jam that mixed Southeast European trad with raging metal, and then stop to sing. His voice was incredible, a strong baritone that wandered into the sort of guttural, melisma-heavy vocals that make Southeast European singing sound vaguely Middle Eastern.

This was my first experience of Gino Srdjan Yevdjevic, Kultur Shock’s singer and impressario, the outsized (both literally and figuratively) front man of what is one of Seattle’s most exciting bands.

The second time I saw Gino was eight months later, and the conditions couldn’t have been more different. Here he was, sitting on a stool with a handheld drum, backed not by the powerful rock outfit but a trio of acoustic guitarists (one of them on bass) and a fiddler. It was the grand opening of Solo Bar & Gallery in Lower Queen Anne, run by Kultur Shock guitarist Val Kiossovski and his wife, and the crowd was strangely split. At Solo, the bar and the stage are at opposite ends of the space; near the bar a group of your typical Seattle hipsters, people in jeans with tattoos and piercings, was gathered. But the people near the stage were all Slavic, nicely dressed businessmen, women in skirts with knee-high leather boots, older gentlemen in blazers and dress shirts, all gathered around the stage, all chanting and singing and eventually dancing along to music sung in Serbo-Croatian. As my friend commented to me, it felt like we were crashing someone else’s party.

Outside smoking, I got my first education in the story of Gino. We were chatting with a middle-aged woman from the former-Yugoslavia. She was wearing black and had the dark sort of complexion you think of as gypsy, and she had the mixture of cynicism and fatalistic sarcasm you get with a lot of refugees. She, like Gino, was born in what was once Yugoslavia. Under Tito, a Communist dictator who broke with the Soviet Union early in the Cold War, the Balkans saw a long period of peace and prosperity in a part of the world noted for neither. Like Gino, she was a child of the era of the 1984 Winter Olympics, held in Gino’s hometown of Sarajevo. The Olympics were a milestone for Yugoslavia, and serve as the idealized “before” of the inevitable “before and after” shots of the war-torn city.

Asking us if we knew anything about Gino, she proceeded to explain that he was once one of the biggest pop stars in Yugoslavia. “When he was like eighteen, you know, he had all the bitches,” she said, making a suggestive gesture to her loins and laughing in a husky voice that bore witness to years of smoking. It was all somehow extremely fitting.

The story of how a Communist-era Yugoslavian pop star wound up a dreadlocked Seattle punk-metal singer for a flamboyantly theatrical band is a hard story to tell, as hard as the music itself is to describe. Ultimately, you fall back on hyphenated labels: It's trad-punk, as the Levellers used to be called (a UK sub-genre that eventually encapsulated Irish bands like the Pogues and Flogging Molly as well). And it's gypsy punk, as Gogol Bordello calls it, though the influences are slightly different in Kultur Shock's case. And it's theater, not really jams so much as calculated performance--again like Gogol Bordello--with the performance and the character Gino plays onstage ultimately becoming inseparable from the music. It is, in the band's own calculation, "Balkan punk rock gypsy metal wedding-meets-riot music from Bulgaria, the US, Japan, and Bosnia." In other words, it's a mouthful, a mishmash of American rock and Southeast European trad, but artfully combined by a pop musician who understands stage presence and character. It's both the real thing and an artful artifice, which is all really just a wordy way of saying Kultur Shock escapes the pigeon-holing most music writers like to trade in. The band rocks, and rocks hard. And they put on a great a show.

I met Gino a week or so later for coffee, the day before Kultur Shock left for a European tour through New Year’s. The first thing I asked him about was his early career as a musician.

“At sixteen, I was the drummer in a band that had a hit, a one-hit wonder,” he laughs. “I was big.” It was a rock band called Zov, though Gino sort of laughs off the word “rock,” explaining that it was really just pop. “Kids today think they’re punk rockers, but they’re really playing pop music. Like the punk kids, Green Day...It’s fine, it’s good, it’s great, but it’s still pop music...Just don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Although he never said as much, I got the impression that he was making a point based on experience. Although Zov was big, they broke up when he was 19 years old. “We pretty much made it, all [of us],” he said, speaking of Zov’s members. “The guitar player is a pretty famous artist, a visual artist, painter right now. The bassist is a politician, and the singer is the biggest pop star in all of those countries right now, the former-Yugoslavia...his name is ‘Harry.’”

But at 19, Gino went off to pursue more “serious” musical pursuits. “I was going more theatrical, more jazz...they stayed more pop,” he said, adding that what he did “was still pop.” It took three or four years to win over the record company, but ultimately Gino returned to even greater popularity under the rather hilarious name “Gino Bananas.”

“We had a huge hit at the time that was kind of saxophony, melancholic, Wham, George Michael kind of pop,” he explains. “Probably my biggest achievement last time we were there on tour was that Kultur Shock overshadowed [Gino Bananas]. The success of Kultur Shock in Europe came back to where I’m from and it was kind of like, ‘Shit, look what he’s doing!’ It’s kind of like, imagine if Justin Timberlake came back in 20 years with some insane band, and your son would tell you, ‘Dad, you know Justin Timberlake from your time?’ And you’d say, ‘Oh shut the fuck up.’ ‘He’s great!’ ‘No he’s not!’ And that’s pretty much what was going on there with me.”

By the early 1990s, Gino was a well-off man, a pop star, property owner and, I got the impression, fairly self-satisfied. But then came the war. Following the fall of Communism and Tito’s death, the Balkans descended into chaos as nationalist groups clamored for independent states. Civil wars broke out between the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and breakaway republics in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and finally Kosovo. “I changed in the war,” says Gino. “When you face death every five minutes, you realize, you don’t want to do shit for anybody do what you like to do.”

When I asked about his own ethnicity, Gino balked and said, “I don’t identify myself.” Historically he comes from Serbian Orthodox-Christian stock, though he was born and lived until the age of 33 in Sarajevo, the capital of Muslim Bosnia. The story of the disintegration of Yugoslavia is too complex to even start to tackle here, and whatever interpretation one uses inevitably stirs objections from one side or another. My experience has been that invariably people from the Balkans will say that Americans don’t really understand what happened there, nor even our own role in causing it. Gino went a step further and said, “We don’t even know what the fuck happened.”

“What you guys definitely don’t know is what we were before,” he adds. “Once you find out what we were before, during the Cold War, then it’s logical what happened to us. Because after the World War II, Tito, the President of Yugoslavia, separated himself from Russia and from the Eastern Bloc, but also didn’t come to the West and the Western Bloc, but made some kind of a hybrid Socialist system where there is private property and private things if you want to, but living, schools and medicine is for free. Which is the way it’s supposed to be.”

“Hate was a crime. National and religious hate was a crime. Because once that shit starts, we got fucked. It stopped being a crime when [Tito] died, and America came to our help, and this is what we did. We started hating ourselves.”

Gino was trapped in Sarajevo during the siege, when the city’s plight became an international cause célèbre. Eventually, he wound up with cultural exchange visa, as an artist, to come the United States.

“During the war I did the musical Hair, but I made it dark and insane and with a bunch of other people, my friends, recording artists...who were trapped in the city,” he explained. “Imagine if this city got trapped and everyone from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Nirvana, whoever, we all get together and we make one huge, shit musical, because you can’t really get out.”

The production was embraced by American celebrities. Joan Baez and the filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson (best known as the writer-director of Field of Dreams) tried to bring the production to the United States, and Robinson planned to make a film about the war with Gino, but ultimately the film plans fell through as time went by; the focus shifted from the Balkans to the Haitian conflict in 1995. But Gino really wasn’t too sorry about that. He told me that he really didn’t have any faith that an American filmmaker would do justice to the story of what happened. Americans tend to exoticize the Balkans, and their perspective is myopic.

“I remember when I came here,” he said chuckling, “there’s Sarajevo [on television], and there’s a woman on a horse. For 32 years in Sarajevo, I’ve never seen a horse, except during football games when the pigs are riding them and breaking the riots.” The film proposal, somewhat unsurprisingly, tried to tell the story through the perspective of an American journalist, a timeworn trope used in countless topical films coming out of Hollywood, currently on display in the Leonardo DiCaprio feature Blood Diamond.

Eventually Gino wound up in Seattle and started playing music, but of the genre we’d call “trad” or generally ethnic world music, at restaurants and weddings. The story of how Kultur Shock (as it was known even then) gave up on world music and became a punk-metal band is the stuff of Seattle legend. The most popular version revolves around Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic seeing the band and telling them to dump the acoustics and plug in, but according to Gino it was actually the result of being thrown out of Serafina, the swank, overpriced East Lake restaurant.

Gino, of course, was a huge pop star, and while he may not have such status with American audiences, he maintains it with the Serbian et al population here in the US, who flock to his shows. As Gino describes the scene in the normally staid Serafina's, “People were just drinking and breaking glasses and jumping on tables and taking off their bras, what’s so wrong about it? We just enjoyed the music." Then he added, with grinning sarcasm, "When Greeks do it, that’s cool.” The management didn’t agree, though. “They liked the band, the Serafina people, so they came to me and said, ‘Can you kind of tell them not to come?’ And I said, ‘For you, for Serafina, so you can have some other people in here? Do you hear yourself? Do you think you’re more important to me than my audience, the people who love me? Fuck you!’ You know.” The rest of the band was unhappy with the decision and the acoustic Kultur Shock disintegrated, but Gino had a sort of what-the-fuck attitude towards it and went his own way.

The first step was to find more musicians, and the first person he called was Mario Butkovic, a Croatian émigré, who now plays guitar and buzuki in the band. Once Gino got him on the phone and told him who was calling, Mario laughed at him and asked, “No, who is this really?” They added to the line-up Val Kiossovski, a Bulgarian who defected with his rock band Orion to the West in the waning days of Communism. And over time they filled out to become the current quintet, with Masa Kobayashi on bass, Matty Noble on violin, and Chris Stromquist on drums. They released a single album, Live in America, before signing to Kool Arrow, a San Francisco-based label founded by Faith No More bassist Billy Gould. In 2001, their first Kool Arrow record, FUCC the INS, was released. According to Gino, it was recorded on portable recording gear, pushing the technology to its max. For the 2004 follow up, Kultura Diktatura, the band enlisted legendary Seattle producer Jack Endino to co-produce. Production values soared to the point where Gino felt it was almost over-produced. So for their third effort, We Came to Take Your Jobs Away, released in October of this year, the band sought a happy median.

As the titles suggest, Kultur Shock is defined less by angst than by a fuck-all sense of humor, particularly about their status as immigrants. The cover of We Came to Take Your Jobs Away features a Slavic plumber over a toilet, and when I first saw it, I assumed it was a reference to the "Polish plumber," a rhetorical scare tactic used by French political groups opposing the EU constitution in 2005. But when I asked Gino about this, assuming I knew what I was talking about, he kind of laughed and said, "No! That's Mario! Our guitarist. He's actually a plumber."

Gino tends to speak in terms of what he and the band’s not: he’s not “cute enough” to be a rock star, not “cool enough” to be in The Stranger. But he takes a definite amount of pride in pissing people off, in pushing buttons and puncturing sacred cows. And his own immigrant status, the double-standard Americans show towards immigrants, the permissible prejudice ("After all, we're white," he comments, "so it's okay") becomes the lyrical correlative to the band's transgressive, border-hopping, miscegenated sound. Strangers in a strange land, their music fluidly slips between the sounds of their home and American pop-rock, but is wholly comfortable as neither. It plays with stereotypes and rejects them, adopts a tango beat only to descend into thrash metal, or an acoustic ballad form to sing such touching lyrics as: "I know how to say/ words like 'fuck' and 'okay'/ in my broken-English way."

“We are pretty much saying what people are thinking in their minds," says Gino. "And they’re pissed about that. ‘We came to take your jobs away,’ is pretty much what you think, mother fucker, so I’m going to say it, and they’re pissed about it. They would like to say it but we say and take it away and they’re pissed about it.”

Frankly, before looking into it, I didn’t understand that comment. I had all three of Kultur Shock’s main records, and I got the humor and I got the musical insanity, but I really didn't understand hwo it could offend people. So when I got home, I looked up an article from The Village Voice that Gino had mocked, and it was only then that I started to get the resistance, to understand how Kultur Shock was pissing off the squares and pushing the boundaries of what (apparently) constitutes good taste.

In the March 8, 2005 edition, Frank Kogan wrote (in an article dismissively titled: “Wild & Crazy Guys: World’s biggest egomaniac rolls around in goo, sneaks beauty in through back door”) that Gino used “deliberately hammy guttural singing as if from a Saturday Night Live routine,” “so overemotive as to put emotion off at a distance.” “I can't predict what I might think in five years,” he snarkily comments, “once I'm really used to it, whether the vocals will seem ridiculously mannered or warmly at ease.” And finally: “They create a distance and then try to cross it, so they can have their love and yuk it up too.”

Reading the piece, I got the distinct impression that somehow Kogan had managed to miss the point completely, being a rockist more comfortable with the pastiche referencing of critical-darlings Beirut (whose Gulag Orkestra, likely to make a number of best-of lists this year, mines the same geography for source material as Kultur Shock, with less surprising results) than with the real thing. Apparently, Kogan didn't remotely find it ironic that he--an American rock critic--was all but telling Balkan musicians what Balkan music was all about, their own ideas apparently inferior to his.

But his dismissive description doesn't much jive with what I saw happening at Solo: old men dancing and singing along as hot young women danced slinkily. (I distinctively recall one very lovely young woman, who was also at the Gogol Bordello show in March, where she jumped up onstage and, what with the suggestive gyrations of her hips, distracted Gogol Bordello's fiddler Sergey Ryabtsev--and me--for most of the show.) I think Kogan inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “these people are absolutely fluent and effective in a bunch of musics (folk, flamenco, Gypsy, metal, reggae), but in hamming it all up they pretend not to be fluent, as if they're afraid of the emotional facility of all these sentimental stylings.” The “emotional facility” and “sentimental stylings” he refers to are so much smoke in the wind, the tepid stereotyping of an American critic who doubts that such genres can be expanded beyond film soundtrack value, to actually make a bigger statement than punctuating a love scene or giving immigrants an excuse to dance around in the hold of ship.

But Gino just laughs it all off. “How they would like to see us is like those two wild guys from Saturday Night Live, and if I come and say, ‘Yes, I’m that guy! Remember me?’ then he’s pissed, because he can’t say it.”

A shorter version of this story appears in the December, 2006 issue of The Seattle Sinner.

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