Monthly Archives: August 2012

Give Me Some Truth

I discovered a collection of essays by George Orwell on Project Gutenberg Australia this morning, some familiar and some new to me, so everything else I was planning to do today has pretty much gone out of the window.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what he would make of recent events, when the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee is being called out on a speech which contain more lies than facts, and the same campaign’s pollster can espouse a breezy disregard for those who seek some kind of factual basis for the claims made in political advertisements.

It looks like the era of ‘spin’ is finally over, not with a return to honesty, but because politicians have realised that they don’t have to give much more than a slight appearance of sincerity. Lie with a knowing wink, the loyal base believes whatever matches their own set of values and prejudices, the other side howls and the partisan bun-fight continues for another news cycle.

Forty years go by and you realise how little has changed:

Truth has now become such a debased currency, relative to who is making the claim and who to, that I almost hesitate to recommend an article which takes as its headline ‘The Truth About Mitt Romney and Bain Capital‘. Yet Taibbi’s writing about the antics of Wall Street – before and since what he calls The Great Recession – has been consistent, long after other commentators have ducked out of an examination of what went wrong.

In this latest article, he shows how Wall Street darlings such as Bain Capital operated – with a ruthless sensibility – closing previously healthy businesses, paying huge bonuses despite looming bankruptcy and never being unafraid to take a government bail-out:

A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

It is the exact opposite to the image the candidate projects and one I doubt many avowed Republicans will be able to stomach, instead preferring to attack the bias of the writer, as evidenced by the comments section below the article. We all hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest, as Paul Simon sang. So it looks as if the short-haired, yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky will be with us for some time to come.

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When I wake up

It won’t have gone unnoticed that I have been neglecting ten minutes hate in favour of other writing projects and sitting about drinking iced tea while trying not to melt in the summer heat (always tricky for redheads). Normal service is likely to be resumed as autumn approaches, in the meantime, here are some of the best things I have discovered elsewhere.

Starting with two very different perspectives on the Obama presidency, the first from Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic, considers the irony of America’s first black president virtually ignoring the issue of race. Looking at Obama’s first term in the context of racial politics since America’s founding, he notes:

[W]hat are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

The hope and change are also in short supply in this Voices on the Square conversation between actor John Cusack and Constitutional Scholar Jonathan Turley, as Cusack charts the death-by-drone-strike of his belief in Obama’s claim to be different to what preceded him:

There will be a historical record. ‘Change we can believe in’ is not using the other guys’ mob to clean up your own tracks while continuing to feed at the trough. Human nature is human nature, and when people find out they’re being hustled, they will seek revenge, sooner or later, and it will be ugly and savage.

In light of recent tragic events, the GQ article, ‘Guns ‘R Us’ is an essential read. Detailing the weaponry available over the counter in suburban America and the motivations of the people who buy and use it, the writer considers whether sales clerks are the best people to spot those likely to freak out and kill large numbers of their fellow citizens:

So these are the people who stand at the front lines, guarding America against its lunatic mass murderers? Clerks at Walmart. Clerks at sporting-goods stores. Minimum-wage cashiers busily scanning soccer balls, fishing tackle, and boxes of Tide.

With various idiotic pronouncements by various idiotic politicians on both sides of the Atlantic about rape, this week has been a dispiriting one to be a woman. I will return to the subject in greater detail soon, but in an attempt to redress the balance, here are two inspirational women who – in their own very different ways – have refused to take any crap from the patriarchy. Shown battling her own demons, the weighty expectations wrought by ‘legend’ status and a Syrian Army deliberately targeting journalists, Vanity Fair’s coverage of Marie Colvin’s Private War is a respectful and illuminating portrait of a peerless war reporter. Her advice to a younger reporter in Afghanistan:

You always have to think about the risk and the reward. Is the danger worth it?

is a difficult one to answer, but we are left the poorer without Marie Colvin to bring our easily distracted attention to the innocent victims of war.

Last, I really enjoyed writer Rebecca Solnit’s account of having Men Explain Things to Me:

Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath.

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Never say never

Today is VJ Day (in Japan and the UK, the US marks the anniversary on 14 August due to time zones).

Unlike this iconic pair, not everyone got to celebrate. Contemplating the numbers who died in the war which ended 67 years ago is staggering, as historians have only been able to agree that the final count is somewhere between 62 and 78 million people.

Perhaps it is too much to hope for that the best way to honour the memory of all those lives lost would be a pledge by all sides to make damn sure it never happens again, instead of using it as an opportunity for sabre-rattling. Tempers have frayed following the decision of a Japanese Cabinet member to visit the controversial war shrine at Yasukuni – resting place of 14 convicted war criminals – which will today become a place of pilgrimage for peace marchers, veterans and right-wingers, some wearing Imperial Army uniforms.

Encounters at the shrine in the heat of August usually become fraught, with violence directed at foreigners, as reported by photographer Damon Coulter, or at left-wingers and peace marchers by some unsavoury characters encountered by the photographer, Adrian Storey, being the norm. It is a long way from last week’s more somber memorials for the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which civic leaders spoke of their hopes for peace and a nuclear-free world.

While it is tempting for some to keep fighting that conflict it is difficult to see what doing so achieves. The stated aims of many of our grandfathers in fighting was less for a political ideology or a country than for their hope that we wouldn’t have to do the same. They had seen their fathers return from another ‘war to end all wars‘, be told ‘never again’ and watched as that promise of peace was betrayed. Their generation fought for us to be able to enjoy a better future.

The promise of peace is not guaranteed, however, not unless we remain vigilant. ‘Never’ looks like a short time when Europe has seen an increase in violence against immigrants, particularly in economically ravaged Greece. In Asia, relations between South Korea, Japan and China are strained over control of a number of small islands and the natural resources which lay within their territorial waters. In the Middle East, despite denials, things again look ominous.

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance.

- George Orwell

Yet there is another way. Not everyone at Yasukuni shrine today will be there to promote a right-wing ideology. Some will attend to march for peace, others to release doves. Even some of the nationalists, such as this one who spoke to Adrian Storey, can behave in a way that encourages a ‘faint flicker of hope’. If those of us who believe in peace, who know that what we have in common is greater than our differences and that those differences can be better overcome by diplomacy than by fighting, continue to guard that flickering flame, one day we will be able to say we have finally fought the war to end all wars.

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Inspiration is everywhere

If there is one thing I have learnt from the last couple of weeks of reactions to the London Olympics on the social media sites, it is that you can look at event of this nature and see whatever takes your fancy. All manner of commentators from an array of political standpoints have been able to use the Games to support their previously held views. As pal and mortal bath-dweller, Mark Woff so eloquently puts it:

There seem to be thousands of humans spending hundreds of hours commenting on threads with such earnestness, glibness, vitriol, lack of self-awareness… one wonders what drives it. More crassness in people hissing comments over the Twitterfeeds at athletes, people seeing and sustaining the dark side everywhere…

And yes, there was plenty to hate, especially the grasping behaviour of some of the companies involved, the empty seats a slap in the face for everyone who had tried to get tickets in the ballot and failedincluding athletes’ familiesthe Tory MP who deemed the celebration of British accomplishments in the opening ceremony to be ‘leftie multicultural crap’. All buzz-killers.

But also, yes, plenty to celebrate, even for those of us in parts of the world who had to experience serious sleep deprivation to follow our heroes. I don’t know if I have failed or passed the Norman Tebbit ‘cricket test’, but I have been keeping an eye on the Japanese victories as much as the TeamGB ones, if only because national broadcaster NHK seemed to have a policy of only showing events Japan was doing well at.

Japan’s women footballers – nicknamed the ‘Nadeshiko’ after the name of a flower – may have been disappointed not to stun the US again following their victory in last year’s World Cup, but showed a lot of heart to take the silver. The game could have gone their way if they had taken all their chances, but they still surpassed the men’s team and – perhaps – earned a seat in business class on the way home.

Seen from here, where gender equality lags far behind that of comparable countries, the most inspirational outcome has been the pleasure Japan has taken in the success of its female athletes, especially in wrestling, table tennis and judo. It is too soon to tell if that will be enough to overcome the workplace inequalities, lack of affordable childcare and adherence to traditional gender roles common to most of Japan. Hopefully it is a start.

In addition to this celebration of the kids at school who were really good at running and suchlike, there was good news for the ones who prefer to be nose-deep in a book too. NASA managed to land a robot the size of a small car on Mars, following a journey of eight months and a landing by way of a sky crane and parachute. Sending back pictures, communicating via Twitter – both on 100% real and verified, as well as the predictable but still funny spoof feeds – the Curiosity should be enough to get us dreaming of space again.

And so, just as every other commentator has used these events to reinforce whatever it was they already believed about something, so I choose to see them as a light in the dark, proof that so long as there are people prepared to risk it all, work harder than the self-confessed lazies like myself ever could to push their minds and bodies to achieve more than was thought possible, we might not be quite as doomed a species as previously suspected. Who knows what our future could hold?

If we can sparkle he may land tonight

- David Bowie, Starman

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Challenging preconceptions and prejudices

Ever since I arrived in Japan I have held a – some would say irrational – prejudice against Roppongi. Admittedly based on little more than an after-work trawl through the area’s multiple British pubs and a few horror stories heard about the clientele of the ‘all you can drink’ nightclubs, I was content to describe it to a visiting friend as something she could comfortably miss off her itinerary. ‘Like drinking in Leicester Square in London’, I said, ‘fine for idiots who don’t know better and tourists’.

But, as with holders of all other prejudices, close examination proves me to be the idiot for damning the whole neighbourhood based on a couple of dodgy nightspots. Today I was lucky enough to be invited to Roppongi’s Mori Art Museum for the ‘Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World’ exhibition, which runs until 28 October. You would be daft to let a similarly irrational aversion prevent you from seeing it.

The exhibition, the first of its kind to be held in Japan, opens by noting a significant parallel in the way both the Arab and Asian nations are viewed by outsiders. The diverse natures of both regions are often dismissed as offering little more than their stereotypes, be that veiled women for one or geisha for the other. The artists in the Mori’s exhibition play with these stereotypes in various ways, from Halim Al-Karim’s ‘Untitled 1′, with its indistinct red-clad figure to Maha Mustafa’s ‘Black Fountain’. The latter splashing oily droplets all over a white room whose windows look out over the Tokyo landscape, reminding the viewer that while one country’s problems are caused by a lack of natural resources, another’s spring from an abundance of them.

The Arab Express curators are aware that for many people, the first thing they think of when considering the region will be its conflicts. The artist always has a choice about how much reality to include or ignore and many of those represented here wrestle with these concerns. In ‘To Be Continued’, Palestinian artist Sharif Waked confronts our fears with his depiction of a typical suicide bomber’s video which, on closer inspection of its subtitles, has the protagonist reading from One Thousand and One Nights. ‘The Story of a Pyromaniac Photographer’, included in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s ‘Wonder Beirut’, features depictions of the once-popular tourist attractions of the ‘Paris of the East’, the negatives burnt by the photographer after the outbreak of the civil war in an attempt to make the pictures resemble the city he found himself living in.

It is a powerful and thought-provoking collection, yet not without moments of humour, even including a series of works which reference the Japanese trend for purikura. Capturing the diverse cultures which make up the Arab World is no small challenge, yet the range of works on display will ensure you leave feeling at once informed, wrongfooted and entertained.

Confront your own preconceptions at the Mori Art Museum before 28 October.

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