30 December 2009

Human rights and the legacy of imperialism

Here's a case I have mixed feelings on - the execution of Akmad Shaikh in Xinjiang yesterday is indeed a thorny problem involving international politics, social justice and the continuing fallout from the bloody legacy of imperialism in East Asia. Some background on the case may be found here: at People's Daily, Auntie Beeb and MSNBC.

On the one hand, I am - as a Christian and Friend - philosophically opposed to the death penalty in any form. The execution of a man who had a history of mental problems and whose responsibility for his actions under the law may be gravely doubted is doubly heinous on the Chinese government's part, and I deplore the cavalier attitude they displayed toward not just the man's life and dignity but also the complexity of the legal questions involved.

But speaking of complex questions, there is also the long and sordid history of western imperialism in China to contend with - and the fact that this case concerns a Briton smuggling opiates into China alone changes the flavour of the entire discussion. Note the editorial use of language in the People's Daily article as compared to MSNBC or the BBC: while we in the West are concerned with the individual human rights of the accused (and now departed), the Chinese government spoke of 'judicial independence' and interference in what it considers its 'internal affairs'. Interesting choice of words. Even more interesting when one considers the argument to the effect that '[h]ow could a criminal be exempted from the death penalty only because he was British?' (an argument made by legal professor Wang Mingliang of Fudan University).

This mode of argument is meant to evoke the historical memory of the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing, with the implication that Britain is now again trying to impose not only its legal system and values upon China but also a new form of extraterritoriality for its citizens. It is unquestionably reprehensible for the Western media to ignore the historical wrongs the nations they represent have perpetrated upon China and, in so doing, prevent any meaningful discussion of a sensitive and accountable response to the government's actions in this case. But the reaction to the Shaikh execution is merely symptomatic of a larger problem - the West's collective amnesia with regard to its imperial projects, particularly when it comes to dealing with third-world nations like China and India. I touched on one form of this amnesia / deliberate naivete previously in this post (with regard to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). In order to build the kind of trusting, communicative relationship with China and India that we need right now, as a nation we must come to grips with the realistic argument that we are not morally superior to other nations merely by our exceptional virtue or our values, and that we cannot escape the consequences of our own history through wishful thinking.

We are still paying for the sins of our fathers; they have certainly been visited upon Akmad Shaikh, at the cost of his life.

24 December 2009

A promise

Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
But thus says the LORD:

Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
and the prey of the tyrant be rescued.
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Saviour,
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

- Isaiah 49:24-26

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

- Isaiah 53:1-6

Good tidings of hope and of liberation to all!

22 December 2009

Christmas double feature

Yeah, it’s that time of year again. I got to see two recent openings at the local cinema these past couple of days: Disney’s Princess and the Frog and James Cameron’s Avatar (in IMAX 3D), and I’d like to share my thoughts on both. A warning to the reader: this post does contain some spoilers.

The Princess and the Frog was the first Disney animated feature film I’d gone to see in theatres in a very long time, given my troubled relationship with the corporation. Eventually, my ars gratia artis side won out over my inner aesthetic Stalinist, and I allowed myself to appreciate again the artistic value of Disney animation, particularly that of the 1990’s renaissance beginning with The Little Mermaid. Artistically, I was impressed with The Princess and the Frog. It’s not daring or groundbreaking or revolutionary the way Beauty and the Beast had been, but it was a fun story with a genuinely strong, sensible and sympathetic heroine. I was glad to see the classism and redemptive-violence problems of previous animated Disney features completely gone. And Tiana is a remarkably dignified working-class heroine, facing down all the problems working-class black people had to live with daily in the postbellum South: minimum-wage poverty and entrenched racism chief among them. In an interesting twist, she isn’t saved by marrying a rich man; the Prince she ends up with starts out as a highly-problematic, frivolous spendthrift who’s been disowned by his parents (and Tiana, thankfully, sees straight through him), who is redeemed by his growing affection for Tiana and his eventual willingness to labour alongside her and share in her dream. It’s a Disney script informed more by Bruce Springsteen and Soren Kierkegaard than by the Brothers Grimm.

The animation quality is polished (but that’s to be expected) and the characterisation is good even for the minor characters (Louis, Ray and Mama Odie) who would otherwise have been bit gags. The musical numbers were delightful, drawing heavily from the cajun, jazz and gospel traditions (though I wasn’t that great a fan of the pop number during the end credits). I enjoyed the delightfully slick villain, Dr Facilier, with his tarot cards and magic cane, though the highly-stereotypical treatment of voodoo (almost, but not quite reminiscent of 1970’s blaxploitation films) was perhaps the most insensitive aspect of the whole movie. All in all, there’s not that much more to tell – it’s fairly optimistic and benign, with a ‘hard work, love and hope pay off’ -type moral, but one which somehow manages to avoid a Pollyanna treatment; even if it isn’t the flashiest or most daring of entries in the Disney animated canon, it is still solid work.

James Cameron's James Cameron's Avatar (by James Cameron) was far more awe-inspiring than Disney’s new film; though flawed, it affords rich food for thought as well as plenty of CGI eye-candy and popcorn action. Story-wise, there was nothing original about Avatar; it is essentially H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds told from the point-of-view of the Martians, and it basically plodded steadily along the trail blazed by movies like FernGully, Stargate, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Star Trek: Insurrection and most importantly Dances With Wolves. We are introduced to a mining project in the Klach D’Kel Brakt on an alien world, Pandora, which is about to displace the indigenous people, the Ba’ku Na’vi. Human agents are sent into the wilderness around the human base by remote-controlling replicant bodies called ‘Avatars’, which resemble Na’vi and can breathe the otherwise deadly (to humans) atmosphere, in order to learn their language and facilitate their displacement diplomatically. One of the researchers was killed in a mugging, so his identical twin Jake (played by Sam Worthington) is sent in his place, since his genome makes him uniquely suited to controlling his Avatar. Jake suffers a crisis of conscience as he begins to interact with the Na’vi (particularly Neytiri, his guide and eventual love interest, played by Zoe Saldaña) and understand their religion and way of life, and ultimately has to make a choice between his mission and the Na’vi.

Okay, so it’s been done before. That’s perfectly fine by me, because Cameron tells the story with relish and aplomb, and turns it into an amazing technical spectacle that puts even the new Star Trek movie to shame in terms of mastery of special effects and computer animation. The world Cameron created was something straight out of a Miyazaki movie – floating mountains, awesome landscapes, exotic insectoid and reptilian life – and he even included a breathtaking flying scene which ought to make Miyazaki-sensei proud. The Na’vi themselves are given their own physiology, language, culture and religion – though this religion is basically a revamped Lovelock hypothesis. Not a minute of the two-and-a-half hours is wasted; the film is gripping and adventurous within its own world.

This film deserves the most positive reaction I can give it. While I applaud the political message (which is stridently anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, anti-corporatist, pro-conservation and often driven home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer), I felt it could have been far more nuanced. It’s very well and good to turn the lens upon ourselves and ask us the tough questions about our own imperial projects and environmental impact, but even beyond the problematic stereotypes of the noble savage and the sympathetic occupier becoming the leader of the resistance, the way in which Cameron explores these issues seems over-simplistic at points.

SPOILERS in next paragraph

For example, Jake’s eventual rejection of his own humanity in favour of his Avatar seemed like something of a cop-out. Jake suffers a crisis of conscience about the displacement of the Na’vi – as any red-blooded human being ought to in his place – and it’s even understandable that he might have in addition a crisis of identity as a result of spending so much time in his Avatar. But this crisis of identity is given pretty short shrift: what allows Jake to step back and tell himself that the imperial project in which he’s caught up is wrong is precisely the humanity that he casts off by the end of the movie. The decision he ends up making is the direct product of an ethic that arises out of his own culture, not that of the Na’vi; there’s no way it can, given Jake’s superficial understanding of their culture. Yet this question is either completely ignored or glossed over in a series of one-liners between him and the evil Colonel Quatrich.

End spoilers

So: Avatar and Princess? Both recommended, but for different reasons. Princess is good, clean fun with an admirably well-adjusted heroine. Avatar is a big, hulking CGI spectacle with a brilliant, if naïve, soul.

20 December 2009

Snow, and updates

Winter is here. Officially. Behold.

What you are looking at is a solid 15 inches of snow, which looks now like it's let up a bit, but no guarantees. At Meeting today I was one of seven people who showed up - and nearly half of the people talked, as the snowstorm whipped about us.

I am currently in the part-time employ of Ivy League Consulting, which helps Japanese prospective students apply to American schools, largely by editing essays and resumes for grammar, spelling and organisation. A lot of these students are applying to graduate and professional programmes here, so essentially I am being paid to do for them what I am currently doing myself. I have already applied for master's programmes in international studies at Syracuse University and the University of Washington, and am a stone's-throw away from applying to Tufts University and George Washington University.

Hopefully I will get to a more extensive blog post later, but for now, this is what I'm up to.

19 December 2009

I'm still alive

Sorry I haven't been posting recently; I've been working pretty intensively on grad school applications. I'll get back to serious blogging soon, I hope.

01 December 2009

Irony, tragedy and progress, part II (or, doing the wrong things for the right reasons)

I watched President Obama’s speech to the West Point cadets this evening. I found it disturbing and disappointing, though it did leave me with plenty of food for thought. It was many of the things we’ve come to expect from an Obama speech – polished, articulate, clear, with powerful and masterful use of language. It is not the style of the speech I quibble with, however, but parts of the content.

I sympathise heartily with President Obama’s predicament here, which looks like a massive juggling act. He is trying simultaneously to chisel out a realistic foreign policy which gets what we want out of Afghanistan, i.e., a state which can stand on its own without collapsing and guarantee some modicum of regional security; to heal a country split neatly down the middle and form some kind of consensus; and to equip the United States economically for the coming decades when we are no longer the sole world power (decreasing the deficit, improving health-care, protecting our industries and jump-starting our green technology sector). It is a job not for a president but for a miracle-worker, and President Obama is not the latter (however much some of his supporters wanted to see him that way). Perhaps not surprisingly, this speech hit at least briefly on each of these tasks facing the country, but failed to satisfy in each.

I fully realise that none of the options facing him as commander-in-chief are palatable. Though I completely disagree with it, I even understand Obama’s rationale for escalating the number of troops in Afghanistan for the short-term, and the extent of our continued responsibilities in the country after what was essentially a war of choice. What I didn’t like about Obama’s reasoning was his mixed message with regard to our overall foreign-policy outlook. On the one hand, he managed to convey a tone of humility with which I agree entirely – that we are (in the long haul) not interested in occupying Afghanistan or turning it into a client state or a protectorate. He stressed that we should not be expected to carry the role of hegemon or world policeman, since ‘no one nation can meet the challenges of an interconnected world acting alone’. He point-blank ‘refuse[d] to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, our or interests’ in foreign affairs, which was heartening.

On the other hand, some of his rhetoric was remarkably naïve, though probably partially of political necessity. Obama’s speech failed to make it clear, even in light of this tone of humility and realism, that Afghanistan and Pakistan were and continue to be problems of America’s own making. Both are spectres of the Cold War – our political predecessors funded and armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan against the Soviets; at one point, we liked the Taliban because they were so forthrightly and stalwartly anti-Communist. But in our brief, passionate partnership born of the political necessities of power politics we failed to foresee that the same zeal they brought to their fight with the Soviets could be exploited to our own disadvantage by radicals like Osama bin Laden. Likewise with Pakistan – the nuclear arms about which Obama is so concerned have American fingerprints all over them, and our long-standing partnership is a reminder of a day when we both distrusted the newly-independent republic of India for being too democratic, too protectionist and too non-aligned for their own good. In light of the new realities President Obama must face down, born of our national sin of hubristic pride, his rhetoric about our difference from the ‘great powers of old’ thanks to our country’s innocence, our ideals and our exceptional virtue among nations was wrongheaded to say the least, and his subsequent hope for our responsible use of our assumed continued global leadership and authority came off, to me, as downright farcical. Obama claims Reinhold Niebuhr among his favourite political philosophers, so he should damn well begin to show it!

… though this could also be seen as a shrewdly-considered but poorly-executed part of the juggling act. Obama is, after all, trying to restore America’s confidence in itself and its citizens’ trust in each other by appealing to a common set of shared values and ideals. Which is well and good, but we want that confidence to be placed on firm, sustainable ground. Is it too much to ask that we approach the world with greater humility and regard ourselves with less pride? In weathering Obama’s prophesied ‘darkest of storms’ in our battered fishing vessel, we must always turn back to the Way of Him who calmed it: by loving our neighbours as ourselves, by caring for even the least of them, by living in greater simplicity, and by moving lower at the banquet table rather than expecting the seat of honour.