27 July 2005

Sheikh up

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

There’s something subtly wrong with everybody piling on top of cleric Sheikh Mohammed Omran for his comments in support of Osama bin Laden. Here’s what John Howard says:

Mr Howard says he thinks the Sheikh’s views would be unacceptable to the majority of Australians.

“He’s reaffirmed that he thinks bin Laden is a good man,” the Prime Minister said. “Heavens above … let’s just sit back and think for a moment.

“He says that bin Laden is a good man. Doesn’t that really prove my point?”

Now this is presented as relevant to the question of whether Muslim leaders and commentators should be allowed to express views that might directly or indirectly encourage terrorism, or whether they should more or less be compelled to actively condemn and discourage it. But what the Sheikh said actually isn’t relevant to that question at all.

What the Sheikh said is that he doesn’t think Osama bin Laden was involved in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 or since, and accordingly that he’s a good man. Howard’s “Heavens above!” assumes what almost all of us believe—that bin Laden was responsible for many terrorist attacks—and gets all bent out of shape about how could anyone think a guy like that was a good man? But that doesn’t actually prove Howard’s point, it just begs the question.

Certainly if Sheikh Omran had acknowledged bin Laden’s terrorist leanings and praised him as a “good man&#8221, you’d be justified in thinking him a potentially dangerous condoner of terrorism and inciter of violence. But he’s not: he’s just a nutcase, like the hordes who believe in UFOs and Intelligent Design.

Opposition spokesman Kevin Rudd doesn’t do any better than the Prime Minister:

“For any Australian cleric to defend the actions of Osama bin Laden is unacceptable and un-Australian,” he said.

“And I would call upon the Sheikh to repudiate his comments in support of Osama bin Laden.”

Again, the Sheikh didn’t defend the actions of Osama bin Laden; he denied them. It’s a whole different thing. Lord knows whether it’s “un-Australian” or not, but I think we’re all getting excited about the wrong issue here. Plus, of course, giving national coverage to crackpot theories that would almost certainly just sink without ripple otherwise.

19 July 2005

Not why, but whence?

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

petty2.jpgThis is from a nice cartoon by Bruce Petty in The Age last week. It contrasts this thoughtful fellow with your more typical Warrior-on-Terror cowering behind barbed wire with his fatalistic but perhaps irrefutable “Not if but when” placard, and I think it’s very good. Go and have a look at it, I’ll wait here.

I’m always quietly amazed at what political cartoonists get away with: I particularly like Cathy Wilcox, who does these little editorial throwaways all through the Fairfax papers that say exactly what everyone’s thinking. Alan Moir’s stuff is good and pointed but I think Wilcox is actually funny, and I like how it’s just slipped in with the news stories. I hope that when the media-ownership laws are a distant memory and we’ve only got the moguls’ word to go on, these guys’ll be the last to go. Cathy Guisewite, on the other hand, should be first against the wall.

So obviously there’s a lot to say about the recent London attacks and I’m not particularly qualified to say it, even though I have been to London and actually rode upstairs on a red double-decker bus. One interesting thing Petty said on the “Talking Pictures” segment of the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday is that Tony Blair at least seems to be backing away from the “war on terror” rhetoric, and certainly his speech yesterday calls for Al-Qaeda’s definitive whomping without using the word “war”, which I think is a sensible retreat.

Clearly terrorism is awful, but I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favours by declaring war on it. A war is a finite conflict from which there generally emerges a winner, and there is just no way we can win this one on these terms. There will always be people who are pissed off about something and keen to express their frustration through violence. We can’t stop that by bombs or invasions; we can’t stop it by olive branches and love-ins. Even if we somehow eliminate or appease every violent dissident now, there’ll be more later: it’s not like smallpox, the war against which we did win. For as long as we have any amount of personal autonomy—and I hope that will be a long time, though I’m wondering—some of us will use it in ways that hurt the rest of us.

Tony Blair says:

The extremist propaganda is cleverly aimed at their target audience. It plays on our tolerance and good nature; it exploits the tendency to guilt of the developed world; as if it is our behaviour that should change; that if we only tried to work out and act on their grievances, we could lift this evil; that if we changed our behaviour, they would change theirs. This is a misunderstanding of a catastrophic order.

Their cause is not founded on an injustice. It is founded on a belief, one whose fanaticism is such it can’t be moderated. It can’t be remedied. It has to be stood up to. And, of course, they will use any issue that is a matter of dissent within our democracy. But we should lay bare the almost-devilish logic behind such manipulation.

This seems a direct attack on our reasonable bibliophile pictured above, but it makes its own—probably deliberate—mistake about the motives of the people who ask why. Nobody pretends that there’s anything we can reasonably do in the Middle East or elsewhere that will stop terror attacks tomorrow. A certain cohort of extremists do seem to be intractably opposed to us in a place beyond reason and nothing’s going to change their personal minds. But this hatred of the West or whatever isn’t just something they thought up one afternoon: it must have historical roots not only in religion but in politics and economics—in all the books our baffled hero is ploughing through—and to understand them and acknowledge our role in some of them might help foster an international environment in which fewer young people are driven to blow themselves up going forward.

It might not be all bad news from Blair. Listen to this:

We must be clear about how we win this struggle. We should take what security measures we can. But let us not kid ourselves. In the end, it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat. That means not just arguing against their terrorism but their politics and their perversion of religious faith. It means exposing as the rubbish it is, the propaganda about America and its allies wanting to punish Muslims or eradicate Islam. It means championing our values of freedom, tolerance and respect for others. It means explaining why the suppression of women and the disdain for democracy are wrong.

Well, it’s hard to argue with that, and I think they should start in on it right away. It seems to me that if we’re going to have a war on terror, one way to at least make a dent would be to refuse to be terrorised: to keep on with our democracy and our human rights and liberties, to keep on catching the bus. The worst response has to be this siege/bunker mentality that drives us to throw away some of our most important Western democratic values—how is that going to help us win? Everything we’ve done so far—you know, let’s bring back torture, let’s lock people up forever without trial, let’s have a war without rules—seems like we’re storming away from victory; it feels a giant capitulation. If they really do hate us for our freedom, then they’ve got their wish.

And it’s clear that for all the fine talk about true faith and legitimate politics, it’s the security measures that actually make it into print. The British government is already pushing new anti-terrorism legislation which it hopes will be in effect by December. The Guardian describes it like this:

If passed, the legislation will outlaw “indirect incitement” of terrorism, including praising those who carry out attacks. The new offense is designed to counter extremist Islamist clerics blamed for radicalizing disaffected Muslim youth in Britain.

The legislation also would make it an offense to receive training in terrorist techniques in Britain or abroad. A new offense of “acts preparatory to terrorism” would outlaw planning an attack and activities such as acquiring bomb-making instructions on the Internet.

Well, that might work, I don’t know. But “indirect incitement” sounds pretty broad to me: the example given is “praising those who carry out attacks&#8221, but that’s almost direct incitement. What about suggesting that London basically asked for it, as <a href="http://www.smh lowest price levitra.com.au/news/opinion/violence-begets-violence/2005/07/10/1120934125013.html”>Tariq Ali did last week?

The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Just because these three wars are reported sporadically and mean little to the everyday lives of most Westerners does not mean the anger and bitterness they arouse in the Muslim world is insignificant. As long as Western politicians wage their wars and their colleagues in the Muslim world watch in silence, young people will be attracted to the groups which carry out random acts of revenge.

Is that indirect incitement? I don’t think what Ali suggests is the real solution, but you’d certainly hope that he’d be allowed to say it. Otherwise, we’re not engaging in a persuasive democratic argument, we’re not the light on the hill. For the same reasons, I’m concerned about the Feds raiding Islamic bookshops and seizing books that allegedly incite terrorism. They’re books! Surely the best response to a book we don’t agree with isn’t to ban it but to write a better book. Otherwise it’s all starting to sound a bit North Korean. But that’s a story for another time.

4 July 2005

Save everything

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

eye.jpgIf you’re in Sydney this Thursday, come and see my brilliant sisters launch their new online magazine, The Humanimal Eye, which will offer monthly news, reviews and essays with a counter-cultural slant. The magazine is one of the first projects funded by Voiceless, an organisation founded by local businessman and benefactor Brian Sherman AM and his daughter Ondine Sherman to help out the animals. Voiceless’s ambassador is famous actor Hugo Weaving and its patron is Nobel laureate JM Coetzee.

The girls have done a great job getting support from Voiceless and putting the magazine together, and their launch party will be spectacular. It will feature plenty of live music from their own band, Little Aida, as well as from awesome hip-hop artiste Macromantics, improv kings Will Guthrie and Clayton Thomas Duo, chanteuse Ivona and the surprisingly soulful Psycho Nanny and the Baby Shakers. I’m sure there will also be various installations and other artistic-type things going on.

It’s from 8:00 pm, Thursday 7 July 2005, at The Frequency Lab, 107/342 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills. It looks to be about a block south of Foveaux Street, right by Central Station. Go to the nearest 7-11 and ask the guy for an egg. No, just kidding. It does cost $5 though.

Hope to see you there.

Another one down

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:16 am

apostles3.jpgThe Herald reports that another of the Twelve Apostles off Victoria’s Great Ocean Road has collapsed, leaving only eight apostles standing. The formation is made of limestone and was called the Sow and Piglets until the rise of Christian fundamentalism and its attendant iconography. The stacks were eroded out of the coastline by the Point-Break–quality surf and the stiff breeze, first into bridges like the old London Bridge (the land-connected part of which fell down in 1990, leaving London Arch) and then, when their spans collapsed, into the pillars that remain (or don’t). They are thought to have been formed somewhere between 25 million and 10 million years ago (much less if you’re one of the abovementioned fundamentalists) and are up to 45 metres high. It’s not clear whether there were ever (I mean recently) precisely twelve of the stacks or when the other ones collapsed, but I suppose it’s not really important.

While I was at uni some friends and I rode our pushbikes along the Great Ocean Road from Adelaide to Melbourne, and we had plenty of time to corroborate the heartbreaking winds that lash the coast as well as the majesty of the rock formations. They are one of those things, like the Grand Canyon, that you think can never be as good as everyone makes out and turn out to be better, that you think must have been robbed of something by their overexposure but somehow haven’t. It’s kind of sad to lose one of them, but at the same time I think it’s kind of cool, a demonstration of the fragility of beautiful things—even bloody great rocks—and a good reminder of our infinitesimal horizons. In all likelihood there’ll be heaps more apostles as the coastline pushes north and the same old forces keep building these things and then knocking them down, but we probably won’t be around to see it. It’s just chance that we’re here now.

It’s also nice that this bit of environmental destruction doesn’t seem to have been our fault.

3 July 2005

Pointy things

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

pointy3.jpgSometime Murakami translator Jay Rubin has written a delightful book called Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, which Vintage has released as a kind of companion to their very stylish Murakami reissues. It has a lot of great stuff in it, including a discussion of the issues of translation that we’ll get to later, as well as some extracts from and descriptions of early Murakami stories that have not been published in English. It’s a rare treat for those of us who love Murakami’s dreamy weirdness but haven’t quite got around to learning Japanese.

One story, which Rubin describes as one of the weirdest of Murakami’s anthology A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (Kangaruu-biyori)—he seems to have a thing for kangaroos, which is kind of gratifying—is called “Tongari-yaki no seisui”, which Rubin translates as “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes&#8221. It’s about an imaginary traditional Japanese delicacy manufactured by a mysterious concern whose patriarchs turn out to be a bunch of blind crows who eat nothing but the cakes in question, approving or damning new recipes and pecking at each other. It’s very weird. Anyway, Rubin closes with this interesting anecdote of life imitating art:

The word translated as “Sharpies” is tongari-yaki, meaning, more or less literally, “pointy-baked-things&#8221. Some time after he wrote the story, Haruki and Yoko were walking along a Tokyo street when they were bowled over to see a billboard advertising a new snack: tongari-kon or “pointy-corn&#8221, cornucopia-shaped corn chips. “Pointy-corn” has since become far better known than Murakami’s story. Just remember, though, Murakami’s “pointy-baked-things” came first!

Well, maybe you had to be there—but it certainly would be weird to see something you’d invented for a story appear pretty much unchanged in the real world. Imagine how Jules Verne would have felt if he’d stuck around to see actual space travel, or how David Foster Wallace must have felt when those toothbrushes with tongue-scrapers on the back hit the big time and began to be advertised heavily. You may remember this from Infinite Jest:

Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame became of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency, the NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

Anyway, House Foods Corporation‘s Tongari (&#8220Pointy&#8221) Corn is now indeed a popular treat in Japan, where it is reportedly described as “a corn snack of crunchy type!&#8221 and comes in standard flavours plain salt, roasted corn, fresh cheese and tuna mayonnaise.

I also wonder how Murakami reacted to Steve Martin’s enduring 1983 film The Man With Two Brains, in which Dr Hfuhruhurr recites the poetry of John Lillison, England’s greatest one-armed poet and the first person ever to be killed in a car crash. The Collected Poems of John Lillison only features two attested poems, until Steve Martin invents some more. The first is “In Dillman’s Grove&#8221:

In Dillman’s Grove, our love did die,
and now in ground shall ever lie.
None could e’er replace her visage,
until your face brought thoughts of kissage.

But the most famous one, which was also referenced somewhat indulgently in LA Story, is “Pointy Birds&#8221:

Pointy birds,
O pointy pointy,
Anoint my head,

I have often wondered what these pointy birds, or “tongari-tori&#8221, were. Perhaps Murakami has finally given us a clue. More later.