24 May 2005

More Engrish

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

razor.jpgMany, many thanks to Jim and Lyndal for taking time out of their Kyushu honeymoon to pick up this brilliantly-packaged disposable hotel razor for me. It is one of the finest examples of Engrish I have personally seen. Something about the mass-produced banality of this hotel junk and the unexpected poetry that tries to enliven it. It even kind of scans:

You know what you want and what to expect.
To run, at one time, like a horse in the prairie.

Well, sure, I want that—who wouldn’t?—but I don’t know if I should expect it. That’s just asking for disappointment.

Of course the tantalising question is: who comes up with this stuff? One thing I love about Google’s plan to digitise basically everything (apart from the fact that it’s put the wind up the Europeans to do some digitising of their own) is that all kinds of sources will be laid bare, and all kinds of genius properly attributed. In the meantime, the Internet only offers up other attestations of the inimitable razor, without any clue as to its inspiration. Alas.

But I did pick up a terrific T-shirt boldly emblazoned “SOURCE of SOURCE” and mysteriously subtitled with the following message:

Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

Obviously too good to pass up. But this time the Source of Source actually has a source: it turns up in this history of Harlem, and also in this Guide to the Boys’ Choir of Harlem (big PDF, don’t bother), both of which include the following paragraph:

Beginning in the 1870s Harlem was the site of a massive wave of speculative development which resulted in the construction of numerous new single-family rowhouses, tenements, and luxury apartment houses. Commercial concerns and religious, educational and cultural institutions, such as the distinguished Harlem Opera House on the West 125th Street, were established in Harlem to serve the expanding population. The western half of Harlem became a fashionable and prosperous neighbourhood. Luxury elevator apartment buildings with the most modern amenities were constructed, as well as more modest types of multi-family housing. Those who relocated from downtown included recent immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

I think that whoever made my T-shirt picked the best sentence, although the penultimate one would have been good too. Neither possible source of Source of Source is terribly accurate with its sources, but both mention Gilbert Osofsky, whose Harlem, the Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930 (New York: Harper & Row, c. 1965) seems to me to be the front-runner. But we may have to wait until Google gets to the New York Public Library to know for sure.

Anyone who can find a likely source for “THE ALWAYS CALM PLAYER MADE HISTORIC RECORD IN THE GAME OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL” please let me know.

18 May 2005


by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

When people like Deakin University academics Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke make an argument for something so controversial as the legalisation of torture, it’s hard to know whether they’re being courageous or just looking for attention. Bagaric and Clarke argue:

Torture is permissible where the evidence suggests that it is the only means, due to the immediacy of the situation, to save the life of an innocent person. The reason that torture in such a case is defensible and necessary is because the justification manifests from the closest thing we have to an inviolable right: the right to self-defence, which of course extends to the defence of another. Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small level of harm on a wrongdoer and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of the wrongdoer.

In a cameo on Lateline last night, Bagaric explained the kind of torture that might be all right if necessary to obtain critical information only your torture victim can deliver:

MIRKO BAGARIC: If you can do something which causes intense, unbearable pain in the short-term but when you stop it has no long-term consequences, certainly in terms of physical consequences, that’s the type of activity you should, that’s certainly the type of activity you should start with.

Melbourne writer Jeff Sparrow offers a good counter-argument in The Age:

In the real world, torture rarely provides accurate information. As the US expert Douglas Johnson puts it: “Nearly every client at the Centre for Victims of Torture, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they did not commit, gave up extraneous information or supplied names of innocent friends or colleagues to their torturers.”

This was one of the more heated points raised in SBS’s Insight instalment in early April, which was all about torture and featured a mockup of the ticking-bomb scenario so beloved of torture advocates (complete with news-flashes from Anton Enus) and a torture clip from CSI (but which could easily have come from any other contemporary US drama, from 24 to The OC—I’d like to see that!). Former US Army interrogator Mike Ritz said:

I wish that people would recognise that torture is ineffective and I think we should spend more time educating people why it’s ineffective, so that people don’t go around supporting the idea. There’s a lot smarter ways to approach interrogating a prisoner.

That said, a lot of the techniques Ritz thought were more effective—sleep deprivation, “stress positions” and such—might be borderline torture anyway. But in a way that’s not really the point: the more fundamental argument is about whether torture would be acceptable if it were a demonstrably reliable means of obtaining information. We may never need to have that argument, since it doesn’t look like torture does anyone much good, but there’s nothing wrong with having it anyway. And of course the fundamental argument has been had many times before, by people who weren’t significantly stupider than we are: that’s why the prohibition is one of the most fundamental in international law. I think Raymond Gaita said one of the best things on Insight:

It’s not as though when the laws on torture were drafted, the international laws prohibiting it without exception that people were naive about these theoretical scenarios, a ticking-bomb here, God, when I was a philosophy student in the ’60s we were always talking about that, consequentialism versus something else. But now what’s happened, I mean after quite literally in a century after millions of people were murdered and tortured, there are people who insisted and who weren’t naive, that this is one crime against humanity whose prohibition should be exceptionless. We’re now arguing about this, not because we’re suddenly interested in moral philosophy or political philosophy, because what, 3,000-odd people get killed in America, 200 in Bali, fewer elsewhere. We’re arguing this now because we’re prepared to turn the clock backwards, turn the whole world upside down in a way, because we want to know how best to save our skins. And I think we ought to ask ourselves whether we’re not ashamed of that fact.

As Sparrow says, the Bagaric-Clarke argument is the crudest kind of utilitarianism. They posit a choice between the innocent victim and the tight-lipped villain, but for any utilitarian worth his or her salt that is not the relevant calculus. Even act-utilitarians have to consider the broader consequences of an action; and any shift towards a society in which people can be tortured is surely not an appealing consequence.

There’s always going to be a conflict between freedom and security. It’s clear that many or most of the human rights we choose to recognise increase the risk that we personally may be injured or killed on any given day. The rights afforded to suspected criminals undoubtedly result in some actual criminals going free and committing more crimes—but we still endorse the rights, not only because we may need them ourselves some day, but also because we want to live in a society that treats people with respect. That’s not “verging on moral indecency”; it’s considering the consequences of our actions and decisions beyond their immediate effect on ourselves.

It’s tough to ask an innocent person to die because we don’t want to torture someone else, but that’s what we all signed up for. We all take that risk. I’m sure I’d feel differently if it were me or anyone close to me at the wrong end of the ticking bomb or the fanatic’s Kalashnikov, I might well say torture the fuckers. But that wouldn’t be a moral position; it would be a selfish position, and, yes, I would be ashamed of it. I think that as citizens—when we vote, when we discuss possibilities in the abstract, when we do whatever we can to shape the place we live in—we have to think morally, precisely because we can’t necessarily trust ourselves when it comes to the crunch. And for most of us, that means no torture.

But it also means having the argument, so the death-threats and whatnot made against Bagaric and Clarke are outrageous and appalling. I don’t think they’ve made very good arguments, but they’ve certainly prompted some good arguments in response (and I don’t mean here), and it is something we have to keep reminding ourselves about, even questioning. So, unless they’ve done this entirely to draw attention to themselves: good on ’em.

13 May 2005

Everything’s A-OK

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

sesame.jpgI’ve just come back from Japan, where I saw many strange and wondrous things. One was this subway poster, in which Sesame Street characters exhort commuters not to take up too much room with their newspapers. It’s a bilingual message, but the dominant English may indicate that it’s directed at the ill-mannered gaijin papering the carriages with their lifestyle sections. Also, the considerate Muppets’ broadsheets are all in English, though the only headline I can make out is A Big Fire Broke Out!!—whose excess of punctuation and dearth of detail suggests that the SESAME Times is probably a Murdoch paper.

The Times also omits any mention of the Sesame Street Muppets’ involvement in the Big Fire, which most historians agree was lit by furry war criminals (from left) Mojabo, Ernie, Teena, Elmo, Bert, Grover and Big Bird as part of an ongoing pattern of aggression against neighbouring streets such as Zhima Jie and Ulitsa Sezam. Violent demonstrations have broken out in those streets. Beneath the harmonious catchcries “Yiiip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh” lies a deeper conflict.

No, wait—the demonstrations were mostly in China and Korea, and they were getting all worked up about the Japanese Ministry of Education’s approval of a new history textbook, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s The New History Textbook. Critics (including Japan’s own Centre of Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility) have argued that the new textbook inadequately characterises Japan’s role in the lead-up to, and behaviour during, the Second World War. For example, the textbook is said to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading Manchuria, to gloss over the Nanjing Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Incident, at opposite ends of the continuum), and to downplay Japanese war crimes including the exploitation of comfort women.

The textbook controversy has been smouldering for about as long as there have been textbooks: Saburo Ienaga spent about 40 years and many court cases trying to get his own textbook published as he’d written it—massacres and all—and not as the Textbook Authorisation System wanted it. He had some important victories but died in 2002; and now the New History Textbook is said to raise (or lower) the bar in minimising or excusing Japan’s role as aggressor in the war—indeed, its publishers are explicitly reacting against the “masochist” (some of us might say “black armband”) view of history and attempting to restore national pride in Japan’s military record.

This site compares the old and new textbooks and includes some interesting timelines. The 2005 edition does seem to apply another coat of whitewash to the 2001 version, which itself could hardly have been described as “masochist&#8221. Of course, the people in Japan’s neighbourhood aren’t shining examples of penitence, or of an encouraging attitude towards unflattering publications, either—and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that China in particular wants to head off any talk of Japan joining it as a permanent member of the Security Council. The BBC News reports that the Chinese Press has explicitly linked the issues; for example, Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao argues:

How can a country which not only cannot correctly handle history, but falsifies history again and again, have the qualifications to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible member of the international community?

Even though the makeup of the Security Council is patently ridiculous and the Chinese defence of it self-serving, it’s hard not to be a little surprised by the official accounts of Japan’s role in the war. I visited the museum attached to the Yasakuni Shrine—which houses the spirits of the Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals like Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui, said to be responsible for Nanjing; and which Junichiro Koizumi keeps raising international eyebrows by visiting—and found it gave a very different account of the war and its causes than I’d pieced together (admittedly, mostly from movies). Like: WWII was everyone’s fault but Japan’s; the US was itching to join in and forced Japan to make the first move at Pearl Harbor; and the Allies unnecessarily prolonged the war by insisting on Japan’s full surrender. Lots of Chinese soldiers died at Nanjing because they were ordered to defend it to the death; Japanese commanding officers issued explicit warnings that civilians were not to be mistreated.

I don’t know what happened. But it seems to me that any responsible history should as far as possible give all sides of the story, with proportionately more space to the more widely- or respectably-held views. Almost nobody adheres to this ideal, but the Japanese government seems to insist on a lower standard than many. On the other hand, at the end of April Koizumi had this to say:

In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, to never turn into a military power but an economic power, and its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means without recourse to use of force.

This is pretty much in line with other apologies issued in the past by Koizumi and other Japanese leaders. It’s not very specific, but it seems genuine enough. Perhaps that’s the Japanese way. I think specifics are important, but perhaps they’re not everything; perhaps actual conduct is more critical.

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